If you grew up watching movies in the 80s and 90s, then you’ve already seen Stranger Things. Try this: It’s 1983. In a leafy, non-descript American suburb, a shady government agency accidentally open a portal to another dimension, unleashing a mysterious monster which picks locals off in the woods. One of these locals is Will Byers, whose rag-tag group of friends band together to try and save him. Along the way, the gang befriend one of the agency’s previous experiments – a young girl with psychic and telekinetic abilities who may be key to everything.
That should all sound fairly familiar. Stranger Things is basically an early Stephen King novel, adapted by an early Steven Spielberg – at its most direct and pitchable, the show is ET via IT, with a side of Firestarter. There’s also a fair amount of John Carpenter – that incredible synth score – and 80s coming of age adventures like The Goonies. It’s a show which doesn’t so much celebrate nostalgia as completely bathe in it, and it appeals to Netflix’s core demographic with such a surgical level of precision that a cynical person might argue that Netflix conceived the show via an algorithm.
But this is countered by the show’s directors, brothers Matt and Ross Duffer. It’s obvious when watching Stranger Things that the show comes from a place of love. These guys obviously adore this kind of material. The effect works in the same way it does in a Tarantino movie; Kill Bill for example is nothing but homage to spaghetti westerns and kung-fu, but if you’re a fan of those movies you’ll be utterly drawn in. Stranger Things is a passion project, one which knows its audience, and this is one of the reasons why its unoriginality isn’t a problem. It’s hard not to watch it with a grin on your face, and a sense that yes, these people get you – they know the sorts of movies you spent your childhood watching, and they’re catering to that. The push for nostalgia may have come from a calculated place, but there’s nothing cynical in the execution.
It helps that whilst Stranger Things is derivative, it does so by stealing from the very best. The visual clues, nostalgic motifs and call-backs are numerous. Some of these are fairly direct; the overall flavour of the piece recalls early Spielberg – primarily ET and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The scenes with El flipping the van to escape, or the kids dressing El to disguise her, step more or less directly from ET. JJ Abrams already did the 80s Spielberg nostalgia trip with Super 8 a few years ago, which covers a lot of the same plot points and themes for that reason, though you could argue that Stranger Things manages to improve the formulae somewhat – it’s got more room to breathe in TV form.There’s plenty more too. Joyce Byers trying to communicate electronically with her son – who is trapped in-the-house-but-not – is directly lifted from Poltergeist. The monster is kept in the dark, like the shark in Jaws, and makes a ticking noise not unlike the creature in Predator. It also apparently cocoons and impregnates people – so there’s Alien and Aliens. In one scene it pushes through a wall in a way which mirrors Freddy Krueger in A Nightmare on Elm Street – Nancy’s name and plan to kill the creature are directly lifted from Elm Street too. A hand springs out from the ground in one scene, making us jump, like the same moment at the end of Carrie. There’s a a bit of Akira in there too. The series owes the most however to the novels of Stephen King – particularly the early ones, which often dealt with horror in small towns, child characters and bogeymen. Everything to do with El is lifted more of less directly from Firestarter (the agency is no different to The Shop, Matthew Modine could be the villain, and even the LSD backstory is same) with a few flashes of Carrie too. The kids – a group of loser misfits who come together to beat an alien and incomprehensible monster recalls IT – the kids even come up with the same sling-shot method to defeat the threat. The two bully characters seem to have stepped out of IT too. The boys are very Stand by Me, and and the government agency accidentally opening a portal is pulled directly from The Mist. The show is always honest with its influences – there’s a character reading Cujo in one scene, and even the show’s type-font is the same one used by King’s 70s publisher. The show feels like the miniseries for Stephen King novel which was never written, and King himself tweeted the show was a lot of fun – describing it as a kind of greatest hits of his own work.
All this would be little more than a private joke however, if the characters weren’t interesting. This is what sets Stranger Things apart from being a private joke. We care about all of these characters, and their interactions – there’s a lot of heart. It helps that everyone in the cast is giving 110% – special shout out to Millie Bobby Brown as Eleven, who gives a performance most adults would kill to give. All the child actors are excellent and will go on to do great things. And Winona Ryder, proving our link to the 80s, is always a welcome influence.
What makes Stranger Things so successful though, is that more than anything, it captures a certain vibe. It makes you feel like an 8 year old stumbling across something scary on late-night TV. It’s the first five minutes of Jaws. It’s those odd little non-conforming sci-fi horror movies you don’t see getting made anymore – the likes of Critters, or The Gate, or Flight of the Navigator. It’s the sort of show that inspires you to dig out all those Stephen King books you read as a teenager and have long since forgotten about. The language of cinema has changed a lot since the 1980s and essentially, they don’t make movies like this anymore. It’s a show for geeks, by geeks, and there’s something genuinely wonderful about that.