Stranger Things is a surprise hit series. The show infuses a blend of sci-fi and 80s nostalgia that takes the ‘band of kids against all odds’ archetype and injects it into a chilling, horror thriller. In the fictional small town of Hawkins, Indiana, a mysterious otherworldly entity enters their world by means unknown and people systematically begin to disappear, including one young Will Bryers. Season 1 was engrossed with his family and three close-knit friends frantically trying to solve the mystery surrounding his disappearance and the strange occurrences happening all around town.
Right from the first opening shot, the television production jumps right into reference territory; the scene gliding above the township conjures up a sense of the familiar. Steven King’s world of adaptions like Pet Cemetery and IT likewise have similar shots. Creative directors, the Duffer Brothers, crafted a believable world filled with intrigue and haunting, interdimensional creatures. These faceless ‘other world’ dwellers are reminiscent of the malevolent, parasitic aliens that invade Earth in the 2003 film (and King adaptation), Dreamcatcher.
…the Duffer Brothers, crafted a believable world filled with intrigue and haunting, interdimensional creatures.
In an underground government facility, a band of scientists suit up in radiation containment gear and re-enter the place where the being first emerged. It’s dark and full of dust mites catching the light. For a few moments, it feels like King’s The Stand crossed over into the zombie-plagued, The Last of Us territory. They discover a grotesque, living creature growing out of the wall. This was where the creature entered their universe.
A Strong Cast Gives the Show Added Edge
Winona Ryder…channels her performance as a committed patient in Girl Interrupted, which she uses here to her advantage. Her role in the season as a worried mother losing her mind over her lost son is both thrilling and moving to watch.
Winona Ryder joins the cast as Joyce Bryers. A smart move given that Stranger Things fanatically draws from genre classics of the past. In this case, it banks on the actress’ previous roles including Edward Scissorhands, Beetlejuice, and Bram Stoker’s Dracula. She also channels her performance as a committed patient in Girl Interrupted, which she uses here to her advantage. Her role in the season as a worried mother losing her mind over her lost son is both thrilling and moving to watch.
There’s also something familiar that rings in David Harbour’s voice (the small town police chief with a tragic past going up against ‘the man’). Listen to some of his dialogue. At times you could swear they were the deep, ruffian overtones of Harrison Ford. Whether or not this was a deliberate move by the casting team, it adds another layer to the show. It does this by making a subtle allusion to those era specific supernatural adventures of Indiana Jones.
Every member of the boy group does the rest of the cast proud. Fin Wolfhard busts his acting chops with ease as group leader, Mike. Caleb McLaughlin does a fantastic job embodying the prudent and distrustful nature through Lucas. And lastly, there’s toothless, good-hearted Dustin, portrayed by Gaten Matarazzo, who ends up being one of the most likable characters. That being said, it is the girl called ‘Eleven’ that is the one to watch. Millie Bobby Brown’s character feels like a crossover reference to Firestarter and Carrie. Every pause, indecision, and word she speaks generates powerful tension and suspense.
Ambiance and Culture References
Songs and movies play an important part of anchoring the world. It begins with the show’s electronic-synthesizer intro music and red letter title scrawl. Music from The Clash and New Kids on the Block create a youthful ambiance. These were the songs of that era. Cultural film references also play a part in the world building. Films such as Jaws, Poltergeist and The Thing, can usually be spotted in background movie posters. They are used to draw audience’s attention to other productions that simultaneously shaped and scared the socks off a generation. To add a more serious, controversial tone to the Netflix series, there are direct references to the CIA run MK Ultra. This is a a real program which was reported to have carried out mind control experiments on human test subjects for decades.
Finally, there is a parallel dimension known as the Upside Down. As Dustin tries to figure this out, he reads from a page from his Dungeons & Dragons guidebook:
‘The Vale of Shadows is a dimension that is a dark reflection or echo of our world.’
To make sense of it, the boys seek out one of their teachers. They discuss and make comparisons to Carl Sagan’s work and Hugh Everett’s ‘Many Worlds’ interpretation. Mr Clarke attempts to clarify their confusion by giving them a practical demonstration. He thrusts a pen through a folded piece of paper which is meant to represent time and space. Their teacher says that this is the theoretical ‘doorway’ or gate they would have to pass through to reach the other side. This explanation is almost identical to another provided in the 90s cult film, Event Horizon. In this movie, Dr Weirdemonstrates how the craft’s gravity drive works by allowing it to travel through the fabric of space to reach large distances.
With Season 2 fast approaching (October 27) it’s almost time delve back into the show’s fantastic world of nostalgia inducing pop culture references, incredible acting, and strange supernatural creatures. If you haven’t jumped on the Stranger Things bandwagon yet, then what are you waiting for?