Once every so often, something completely unexpected will take our screens by storm and hook the wider viewing audience whilst having a profound impact on the media; spawning memes, fandoms, cosplays and countless merchandise. Prior to the pop culture takeover by Game of Thrones, who would’ve thought back in early 2011 that the most popular show on TV would feature dragons and medieval politics, topics previously reserved only for Tolkein obsessed geeks? Indeed, who would’ve thought in 2016 that the next big thing to grace our streaming screens would be an 80’s themed horror/sci-fi with five pre-pubescent children as the stars? While not quite on the scale of George R.R Martin’s fantasy leviathan, the Duffer brothers’ ‘Stranger Things’ has taken the world by storm since its introduction onto Netflix last year, for very good reason.
The show is very aware of its roots and makes reference to them throughout. The styles and influence of Steven Spielberg, John Carpenter and especially Stephen King, are obvious and are executed in unique and exciting ways that make them feel fresh and crucially, leaves the viewer on the edge of their seat from episode one. In particular, the incredible opening titles masterfully composed by Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein evoke memories of synth scores typical of the time period. For me, ‘Halloween 3: Season of the Witch’, the panned threequel of John Carpenter’s popular slasher romp, always comes to mind when those artificial notes first boom on screen, sending a chill down my spine every time.
The plot is well written and easy to follow, but I won’t get into too many details here, check out the Wikipedia page for that. It’s simple and some might say generic on the surface, but it spreads a clever science fiction mystery perfectly over excellently paced over eight ‘chapters’, showing another clear inspiration for the series: classic 1950’s serials. The plot itself is also a love letter to 80’s sci fi, horror and coming of age stories. ‘The Shining’, ‘ET’, and in particular ‘Stand by Me’ all have strands of DNA expertly woven into the narrative. The vision of the 1980s is vivid and realistic with an excellent attention to detail. From Mike’s toy Millennium Falcon to the upbeat and playful tones of the Jam playing through Johnathan’s cassette player; the show screams authenticity. Speaking of screaming, it is also of course, in part at least, a horror. From the decaying buildings and gory bodies of ‘the upside down’ reminiscent of a Ridley Scott alien hive to the slender-man inspired creature with its jump scares, the Duffer brother’s evoke as much horror and disturbing elements as they do humour and coming of age drama. A slight editing critique is in the final showdown in episode eight far overuses flashing strobe visuals that took me out of the action for having to physically look away from the screen.
Besides that, there isn’t a huge amount to critique within ‘Stranger Things.’ As someone who has grown weary of terrible child actors over the years, the cast of youngsters are a welcome breath of fresh air. Each character is not only written to be distinct, but all the performances are pulled off with believable gravitas and where necessary, pathos. If there was a slight criticism to make, it would actually be with the shows biggest star: Winona Ryder. As Joyce Byers she certainly sells the performance of a frantic mother desperate to find her child, but as the episodes go on and she gets more and more screen time, this is taken to frustratingly loud and, for want of better word ‘screechy’, levels. While the direction is largely spot on, advising poor Winona to rein it in a tad to limit her spectacular meltdowns to key dramatic beats, could’ve made for a more believable character. This is however, a mere nit-pick amongst the stunning cast of both children and adults. In particular, David Harbour’s curmudgeonly cop Jim Hopper starts the series as a stereotypical sheriff, but as the series evolves and backstory is slowly revealed, layers of humanity are pulled back and thrown to the forefront of the emotional action creating some truly heart-breaking and disturbingly real moments. In fact that sums up the whole series: while it might take its basis within stereotypes and well known cliché, it blends them so seamlessly in with realistic drama, raw character emotion and a genuinely interesting mystery that the nostalgia is not the driving force of the story, it’s simply an excellent backdrop that gives the series that much more charm and appeal, making it stand out against other shows that try to weave pop culture references into their narrative.
All in all, ‘Stranger Things’ is smart, scary, funny, well-paced, exciting and has an absolutely gorgeously realised atmosphere, setting and tone. The wide shots of the town again evoke the opening scene of ‘Halloween’ with crusty brown leaves flying across the credits as we’re introduced to Haddonfield. The Duffer brothers capture the tone of 80’s horror, sci fi and child coming of age stories all in one magnificent package. With the support of a mostly consistent cast, a haunting soundtrack and a good helping of humour to keep the potential bleakness at bay, ‘Stranger Things’ can only be compared to a rollercoaster ride; It throws you around and keeps you on the edge of your seat, only to be over in what seems like seconds and leaving you waiting with baited breath for a second ride could possibly offer.