A lot has already been written about the new Netflix show Stranger Things, so I’m not really going to take too deep a general dive into it here. Though I’d be remiss if I didn’t at least mention the overall strong writing, directing, musical score, set design and performances.
This show features a number of teen, and pre-teen, actors and not one of them annoyed me. In fact, I’d say each of their performances holds up nicely against some of the better actors of any age you’ll find out there. Millie Bobby Brown – who plays the enigmatically gifted Eleven – and Finn Wolfhard – playing classically geeky and goodhearted kid Mike – deserve special mention for carrying much of the burden for bringing the viewer back to that age where the world really started changing for them en route to young adulthood.
On the grown-up side of things, Winona Ryder gives a very nice performance as grieving mother Joyce, who spends much of the season bordering on insanity until she’s proven right. While David Harbour – who plays Chief Hopper – imbues the character with the sort of 1970’s-1980’s era of wry but steady masculinity defined by roles like Roy Scheider as Sheriff Martin Brody, or Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones.
What I’m more interested in here is taking a personalized look at the influences that inspired creators/show runners The Duffer Brothers, as they are many of the same things that influenced my tastes and own creative endeavors.
But let me first take a quick moment to applaud Netflix for taking a chance on show for such a specific audience, even though it has rather surprisingly found its way to much larger audience. But it reminds you of why Netflix exists, and was so successful, in the first place: taking chances on shows like this one.
Here’s the basic plot, as told from a child of the 80’s like myself (be warned, there will be some spoilers below):
Imagine E.T. but, instead of an alien, the kids find and bond with the girl from Firestarter or Carrie. Together, they’re searching for their missing friend in a similar end-of-the-innocence quest to the one in Stand By Me (of course the kid they’re looking for in Stand By Me is already known to be dead, while the kid in Stranger Things may not be). Either way, the boy’s been taken by a monster not unlike Pennywise The Demonic Dancing Clown from Stephen King’s IT.
Honestly, there is a lot more Stephen King spin present in this show than has been explored in some other reviews. Hell, even the main titles font from the opening credits looks like the vintage cover to a Stephen King novel.
Meanwhile, the teens are dealing with a sort of A Nightmare On Elm Street situation as this same monster presents itself as something that seems to be able to defy the laws of nature and bend reality to its will. This is not far from the truth, as there is some heavy extra-dimensional action happening a la H.P. Lovecraft stories like From Beyond or Dreams In The Witch House.
Lastly, there’s the adult characters’ story arc. This one gets a bit of the short shrift, though that’s clearly by design as The Duffer Brothers know where their bread is buttered here. Still, Winona Ryder gets to lose her mind over a lost loved one like Karen Allen in John Carpenter’s uncharacteristically sensitive Starman. And the other primary adult character, David Harbour’s police chief, ends up having to deal with your classic secret government cover-up prior to he and Ryder confronting the facehuggers from Alien and the shark from Jaws.
That all may make it sound very derivative but, seriously, everything is derivative. It’s just a matter of where you derive from, and how well you adapt it to your purposes. In the case of Stranger Things, they’re pulling from some of my old favorite things and shaping them into one of my new favorite things.
Now, my enjoyment of this show is actually due to more than just it hitting my nostalgic sweet spot. Stranger Things hits the emotional punching bag pretty hard too. It took me across the spectrum from the first tugging of love on my youthful heartstrings in the Mike & Eleven relationship, all the way to spending half of the season finale choked up for reasons I would not have understood until more recent years thanks to revelatory scenes from Chief Hopper’s past. And you better believe it takes a lot to get me choked up.
I do want to make one last mention of the fantastically retro, atmospheric synth-heavy musical score comes right out of John Carpenter’s best work. This is not a surprise, as it was composed by the same people who did a similarly awesome score for The Guest. The songs they licensed and used at key points in the show are amazingly on-point as well.
Speaking of The Guest – that film, as well as films like It Follows, Super 8, and Midnight Special, are kindred spirits in tone and theme to Stranger Things even though none were actually set in the 1980’s. Regardless, I can only hope this means we’re on the cusp of a whole new cinematic movement, as long as it gives us more gems like the ones mentioned above.
Oh and, by the way, in case I didn’t make it clear you should DEFINITELY watch Stranger Things. Believe me, you can burn through those 8 episodes this weekend. In fact, you’ll have a hard time not doing so once you start.