From Out of Nowhere: The Phenomenon of Stranger Things
A single mother’s youngest son vanishes into thin air. The desperate search begins, but with very little clues to go on, time is running out. The missing boy’s three friends decide to hunt for him, ignoring the police chief’s stern warning to stay out of the way. Things just don’t seem right in this little town. A young girl mysteriously shows up, hungry, alone, and possessing powerful abilities. And the local energy plant has been working on some weird research. Maybe they woke something up, perhaps even knocked a hole in another dimension. Very strange things are happening, and they all seem to be related.
Very strange indeed.
This certainly sounds very familiar, like we’ve all heard this story before. While the setup reads like the synopsis of a made-for-TV show you might see on the SyFy network, it is actually the plotline of the hot breakout series Stranger Things, with season one available on Netflix. This is not the first foray into horror for Netflix—that honor belongs to their original series Hemlock Grove—but Stranger Things is their best attempt at horror so far, and based on the strong fan base and the favorable reviews, it appears they have a hit on their hands. The plotline does have that ‘been there, done that, got the T-shirt’ vibe to it at first glance, but viewers are discovering that the story hits that sweet spot between nostalgia and originality, with a strong cast and superb writing.
The stranger thing that makes Stranger Things so special, that allows its engine to fire on all cylinders, is a complete and full embrace of its influences while maintaining enough thrust on the line to move beyond those influences and pave its own path. And by saying influences, we mean all the influences. There are references to pretty much every major horror and science-fiction film and TV show of the 80s, with a few modern references thrown in for good measure. There are other articles out there that break down every reference and where you see it in the series, but for our purposes, and to avoid major spoilers, we’ll just stick the obvious influences.
From the very beginning, the production smacks rather sweetly of the best that Steven Spielberg has to offer. The ambiance here is straight in line with The Goonies, and that John Carpenter soundtrack does wonders to send us right back to 1983. Even the theme song by Austin, TX based experimental band Survive intentionally mimics Carpenter’s soundtracks, with pulsing synths and a smooth flow. The Spielberg effect doesn’t end at The Goonies either (Spielberg was the executive producer of The Goonies while Richard Donner directed.). E.T., Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Jaws, Poltergeist, even Minority Report, all get a nod here too.
The series logo even evokes those Stephen King paperback covers, again fully intentional, and there are many more nods to King as well, specifically from Carrie, Firestarter, It, and The Body (adapted into the film Stand by Me) ,but not all of the pop-culture references in the series are from the 80s. Scenes reminiscent of Under the Skin, the Silent Hill games and movies, even the Dead Space video games, don’t seem out of place at all, and flow with the story. With nods to everything from Alien to The Last Starfighter, a few more references won’t make a difference at this point
Repeated viewing could certainly uncover even more references, but that might take away from the enjoyment of the series. The thing is not to get all caught up in the cultural reference hunt, but to allow those images to enhance the overall experience. The show runners, brothers Matt and Ross Duffer (who also co-wrote some episodes of Wayward Pines), smartly pay homage to their heroes without playing the copy-cat game.
The fuel for this pop-culture reference extravaganza is the stellar cast that manages to steal and steal back all that chewed up scenery. Winona Ryder has never been better, filling out the role of stressed out working class single mom perfectly. We can smell the sweat, coffee grinds, and cigarette butts coming off her through the screen, and we go through the paces with her as she does everything she can to get in contact with her missing son. Most of us could never imagine the emotions and pain that happens when one of your children is missing, it’s a nightmare not to be wished upon our worst enemies, but Ryder captures a little of that, along with David Harbour, who portrays Chief of Police Jim Hopper. Here, Hopper’s character has lost his daughter and keeps it bottled up inside with pills and booze, threatening to boil over at any second. Hopper’s character is bitter and resentful, but deep down he cares, even though he can be jerk about it most of the time.
The nitrous oxide tank to this frantic ride is the child actors of the show. From Finn Wolfhard (recently cast in the movie adaptation of Stephen King’s It), who plays Mike Wheeler, to his best friends Caleb McLaughlin as Lucas, Gaten Mattazzo as Dustin, and Noah Schnapp as the missing Will Byers, these young actors are expertly cast against British acting powerhouse Millie Bobby Brown, portraying the strange young girl, Eleven. A character that is a cross between Carrie’s Carrie White and Charlie McGee from Firestarter, Brown manages to captivate us with as few words as possible, becoming the focus of most the story. The teenagers of the show provide excellent subplots as well, with Natalia Dyer as Nancy Wheeler (a nod to Nightmare on Elm Street), Charlie Heaton as Will Byers brother Jonathan, (nod to Brian De Palma’s Blow Out and Body Double), and Joe Keery as Nancy’s heartthrob Steve Harrington (a reference to John Travolta’s character in Carrie). These characters initially play their roles as stereotypical and falling into standard tropes, then drift away from our expectations in ways that you don’t really see coming, which is refreshing and adds additional wrinkles to the story. Their story arcs are logical yet unpredictable, compelling you to watch just to see the outcome of their decisions.
Then we come to the big bads. With Catherine Dyer as Agent Connie Frazier, Pete Burris as Hawkins Head of Security, and rounded out by Matthew Modine (here channeling David Cronenberg ala Dr. Decker from Nightbreed), we see Stephen King’s The Shop from Firestarter fully realized once again. Eleven is their product and property, and they will do anything, even kill, to get her back to the facility. Modine’s Dr. Brenner is about as nasty as they come, portraying the behind-the-scenes mastermind role with understated glee. The real enemy here of course is the thought that corporations, even our own government, have plans beyond the scope of our everyday lives that affect us in ways we could never imagine, and have the power to cover it all up as though nothing ever happened. The Duffer brothers use that distrust and fear here to their advantage, so whenever you see one of those Hawkin’s vans driving around town, you know it can only spell trouble for our heroes.
An argument could be made that the show’s strength lies purely within all the many references running through it, that without these pop-culture ticks the story wouldn’t be as effective. Yet, without the strong story and the top-notch casting, those very elements would crumble to ground, unable to withstand the weight of all that’s come before. In the long run, none of that matters. What does matter is that the Duffer brothers and Netflix have put together a very enjoyable series that captures the spirit of everything we love about the 80s while striking their own footprint with a compelling story that you can’t stop watching, and will undoubtedly watch again and again. Somehow, as they tied up most of the plotlines as neatly as possible, the showrunners have left a little room for a continuation of the story, and there are still some nagging questions to be answered. Hopefully we will get some answers next year with a second season. Until then though, just hit that Netflix button on your remote control and slip back into the 80s.