Every era has its own distinct ingredients, features that help define it, so that namedropping just a few of them will help pin you to it. Synthesizer soundtracks. VHS tapes that break and need splicing. Good Stephen King movies. Wine coolers. Shoulder pads and fingerless gloves. Very Special Episodes of Different Strokes.
If you looked at all of those and guessed I’m talking about the 1760s, you need to stop taking history lessons from the crazy lady with the shopping cart in the bus station. Of course I mean the Eighties, possibly the greatest era for lovers of horror and science fiction movies. And the Eighties is the setting for many a nostalgia-driven project, with varying degrees of success.
But none come close to the success of STRANGER THINGS, an eight-part series on Netflix from Matt and Ross Duffer, brothers who brought similar success to the TV series WAYWARD PINES. I’d heard only piecemeal reports about it, but when it showed up on Netflix, I gave the first episode a chance. And I’m glad I did, because it turned out to be not only an engaging, entertaining nostalgia trip, but a brilliant little homage to early Stephen King, Steven Spielberg, John Carpenter, David Cronenberg and other heroes of my adolescence.
In a sleepy town in Indiana, Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), Lucas (Caleb Mclaughlin) and Will (Noah Schnapp) are your typical nerds, the ones who got picked on mercilessly and bonded through Dungeons and Dragons. Meanwhile, in a nearby facility run by the Department of Energy (yeah, right), an unseen entity attacks a redshirt in a white coat and escapes into the surrounding woods. Will is riding home after fighting cave trolls and Demigorgons when the entity chases him into and out of his house and finally vanishes.
Will’s mother Joyce (Winona Ryder) and older brother Jonathon (Charlie Heaton) are understandably frantic over Will’s vanishing, and local Chief Jim Hopper (cop David Harbour), who we learn suffered his own loss of a child years before, begins to look at the nearby facility, headed by not-at-all-suspicious Dr. Martin Brenner (Matthew Modine), we are introduced to a young girl with a shaved head and dressed in a hospital gown, and known only as Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown). Ignorant of the world but possessing strange powers, Eleven befriends Mike, Dustin and Lucas, who are looking for Will as well. Will’s mother, meanwhile, thinks she’s somehow come in contact with Will, or at least his spirit, via electic lights… and people around town begin vanishing as well…
STRANGER THINGS is like a Stephen King novel adapted by John Carpenter or Steven Spielberg. But instead of the hot mess you’d expect from that combination, it’s been done masterfully. We get the ongoing mystery as seen through three viewpoints: the boys and Eleven, Will’s brother and Mike’s teenage girl Nancy (Natalia Dyer), and Joyce and Chief Hopper, while Modine’s not-at-all-suspicious Dr Brenner remains a threat to them all, without chewing the scenery. The cast are uniformly excellent, but special mention must go to all the kids, who not only act completely natural, but who look natural too, not at all Hollywood- or Disney Channel-like. Their chemistry is solid, and their friendship utterly convincing.
And the look of the series is spot on, down to the synthesizer score and the font used in the titles and chapter headings, with nods to contemporary movies like THE THING and THE EVIL DEAD but thankfully leaving out the cliched pop songs. And at only eight episodes, it doesn’t outstay its welcome. Engaging, engrossing, I highly recommend it as a prime example of a non-network series getting it absolutely right.
STRANGER THINGS is available now on Netflix. I seriously hope it gets a second season.
Plot: 5 out of 5 stars
Gore: 2 out 0f 10 skulls
Zombie Mayhem: 0 out of 5 brains
Reviewed by Deggsy