I was shrieking and clapping excitedly at the screen over the past weekend. That happened whenever I saw the opening credits to Stranger Things, which was eight times. Within 48 hours, I binge-watched the entire Netflix series, which had just come out on July 15th. Yes, Netflix has been churning them out one after the other, and has yet to disappoint me.
The opening of Stranger Things consists of synth music that simultaneously invokes 80s computers and horror or sci-fi movies. Its brilliance is in its minimalism, which also applies to the visuals in the opening. The camera moves around the contours of the letters in the series title, until they all come together. The red-on-black and the increasingly pulsating music are enough to convey a sense of urgency… mystery… suspense… danger.
Stranger Things is heaven for conspiracy theorists, children of the 80s and 90s, and general fans of campy sci-fi and supernatural thrillers. I fall into the last two categories. The atmosphere which the opening credits set, following the first scenes used as intro, instantly delighted me and pulled me in. The people involved in the making of the series, headed by co-creators Matt and Ross Duffer, are clearly aficionados paying homage to 80s pop culture. From the soundtrack (rife with 80s rock classics) to the sets, throwback scenes and props – the telephones, the radios, the walkie-talkies – you’ll be immersed in their nostalgia-inducing world.
A main actress in the series was herself an icon of gothic camp back in the day. You may recognize Winona Ryder from favorites such as Beetlejuice (1988) and Edward Scissorhands (1990). It took me a couple of minutes to adjust to seeing her as a slightly neurotic grownup (she still has a girlish face, and is very petite). In Stranger Things, Ryder plays Joyce Byers, a mother whose strong connection to her young, unusual son prevents her from believing he’s dead when everyone else says so. On his way back from playing Dungeons & Dragons with friends, her son Will Byers (Noah Schnapp), disappears without a trace – although the audience does get to see how.
Slowly, the puzzle pieces start to come together, and the aptness of Will’s loyal friend squad in playing the wizard board game may prove crucial to solving the case. It’s probably every boy’s dream come true actually getting to use skills and powers to fight the monster lurking in the house, the woods, the halls of his school…
Enter “Eleven” (Millie Brown), an escapee from a heavily guarded government facility who joins the Goonies-style crew. She’s got real superpowers and finds in the boy Mike Wheeler (Finn Wolfhard) her first friend ever. She had been born and grown up with the government performing experiments on her and does not know what life outside is like. Somewhere out there, her mother also refused to believe she was dead.
The relationship among “Eleven,” Mike, Will and the other two in their crew – the savvy Lucas Sinclair and Dustin Henderson – is quite endearing. The monsters are terrifying, although I don’t know which of them is more so – the alien-type creature trying to eat people or the stone-faced Dr. Martin Brenner trying to get everyone shot to death as he tries to track down his most precious government test subject.
Besides Mike and Will, I would have liked to have known more about the personal lives of the other children in the series. It would have taken a few more episodes to make it happen, but I would have been totally happy to sit through that. I found the storyline of the Byers family very realistic in its insights on grief and family dynamics, in complementary contrast with the fantasy elements surrounding them. Kudos also go to the series’s portrayal of high school romantic relationships and school bullies.
The performances of Brown and Ryder impressed me the most; the former for what she can convey practically with just her eyes (she speaks very little), and the latter for her mastery in fleshing out her complex character, without overdoing the “live wire” aspect that could so easily have overridden other traits. But my favorite character is Jim Hopper (David Harbour), the sheriff of the small, otherwise peaceful town of Hawkins, Indiana, where Stranger Things plays out. He turns out to be so sharp that he may just manage to outwit the ruthless government agency trying to cover up the Byers case in the midst of Cold War paranoia. Also, it’s a personal case for him, as he lost his daughter when she was still a child, something from which he’s still reeling.
John Carpenter’s scores were a big influence for the “Stranger Things” composers, Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein. Also, Carpenter’s movies such as The Fog (1980) and The Thing (1982) were directly referenced in the Netflix series. Indeed, the whole series is a big amalgamation of beloved 80s classics. The most obvious references are perhaps Steven Spielberg – E.T. (1982) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) – and Stephen King – Carrie (1976) and Stand by Me (1986).
Spielberg’s/Hopper’s Poltergeist (1982) is also very much present; prepare to see an invasion of the supernatural and a gooey portal (or three) to another dimension. I did not like these elements in Poltergeist, but they made sense to me in the lovingly dated, tribute-paying context of the Netflix series. I suspended disbelief for good old times’ sake. Can’t wait for Season 2!
Fun bonus: After you’ve watched the series, visit this Vulture.com article to see how many cinematic references you were able to spot.