Netflix’s Stranger Things uniquely blends 80s horror tropes to create a timeless series
On this week’s Water Cooler Podcast, Megan McLachlan rightly said that Netflix’s newest obsession, Stranger Things, had a timeless quality about it. She’s absolutely right. Even though the series sends up, borrows from, and honors 80s-era horror tropes, Stranger Things‘s central story feels out of time. A solid foundation of themes like coming of age, friendship, and family grounds the fantasia. Even though the 80s references are the window dressing, Stranger Things grows beyond its setting and influences. It isn’t just a gimmick. It’s the real deal.
The pilot episode introduces us to a Goonies-like group of pre-teen friends as they engage in that most 80s of games, Dungeons & Dragons. An unseen monster abducts one of the friends, and his struggling mother (Winona Ryder) embarks on a quest to rescue him. His friends get in on the action too, aided by a mysterious girl (Millie Bobby Brown) who possesses special powers of her own. That’s a very bare-bones description of the plot, but you get the general idea. You’ve really seen all of this before even though you may not directly realize it. Take The Goonies, Alien(s), and about six different Stephen King books, stick them in the blender from Gremlins, and you’ve got Stranger Things. That’s not a slam at all, by the way, and the least you know about the overall plot the better the surprises and sense of discovery will be.
But is it any good? Short answer, absolutely.
Some internet scuttle here and there calls Stranger Things merely a stunt show, something notable only for 80s kitsch value and little else. I take issue with that. This isn’t just an exercise in style. There are human emotions at play amidst the celebration of horror tropes. The four kids cast as the central group follow not only in The Goonies tradition but also Stephen King’s It and The Body (Or Stand By Me). They appear to know each other from birth, and they’re able to handle complex material without appearing overly staged. Winona Ryder embodies the Dee Wallace (formerly Dee Wallace Stone – ET, Cujo) role as the mother coping with single parenthood, lack of money, a missing child, and mysteriously blinking lights that may or may not be the embodiment of her missing child. Ryder digs deeply into the role, giving a manic, wild-eyed performance that brilliantly fits the mama bear role.
But, yes, those fantastic 80s-era tropes are staggeringly great. A Nightmare on Elm Street. ET. The Goonies. Firestarter. Alien. Aliens. Poltergeist. Stand By Me. And a whole bunch of John Hughes films. Even the way blood signifies fear of the feminine (OK, I won’t get too film school on you). The touchstone music of overly familiar tunes that immediately sets you in time and place. All of it works seamlessly together to create a new piece of entertainment based on emotions and fears we shared as children (of the corn).
There are a few quibbles I could make with Stranger Things. The pacing feels off at times – it needed to feel tighter in some sections. Also, there’s an overly generous retribution toward the end that felt completely unwarranted, but that’s likely by design. Someone has to die in the sequel, right? In the end, Stranger Things is an homage to the late-night cable TV obsessions of our childhood. Its secrets and surprises gradually reveal themselves in a familiar, yet totally rad way. Even though it’s an homage series, it really is unlike anything else on television right now. And that’s the highest compliment I could pay it.