Director – Matt Duffer, Ross Duffer, Shawn Levy
Cast – Winona Ryder, David Harbour, Finn Wolfhard, Millie Bobby Brown, Gaten Matarazzo, Caleb McLaughlin, Natalia Dyer, Charlie Heaton, Cara Buono, Matthew Modine, Joe Keery, Rob Morgan, John Reynolds, Joe Chrest, Noah Schnapp, Mark Steger, Randall P. Havens, Tobias Jelinek, Susan Shalhoub Larkin, Catherine Dyer, Anniston Price, Tinsley Price, Peyton Wich, Ross Partridge, Hugh B. Holub, Cade Jones, Chester Rushing, Chelsea Talmadge, Robert Walker Branchaud, Stephen Dean, Shannon Purser, Pete Burris, Andrew Benator, Charles Lawlor, Tony Vaughn
Release Year – 2016
Reviewed by John of the Dead
There was no time I enjoyed horror films more than during my childhood. Alien, The Thing, The Evil Dead, and Romero’s Night of the Living Dead scared the hell out of me, and while they still do to an extent…it’s nothing like the nightmares they gave me 25 years ago. Because of this I highly enjoy horror films that center on that nostalgic feeling of being a young horror fan whose imagination is running ever-wild (like Guillermo del Toro’s). Such films include The Gate, The Monster Squad, Joe Dante’s The Hole, and now we can include Netflix’s series Stranger Things. Aimed at those of us who yearn to once again feel that type of way, this series is pretty much everything I wanted it to be. With an 80s centric plot about governmental mischief, a creature on the loose, naive adults, and the fate of a small town in the hands of its local adolescent outcasts, it feels really good to see an effort like this for the masses to enjoy.
Set in 1983, this series stars Winona Ryder (Beetlejuice, Frankenweenie, Black Swan, Alien: Resurrection, Bram Stoker’s Dracula) as Joyce Byers – a single mother raising two boys while living in a small Indiana town. When her youngest son, 12 year old Will, goes missing, her investigation leads her, the town’s police chief, and Will’s best friends to terrifying revelations about what is going on within a government facility on the outskirts of town. As extraordinary events resulting from government mishandling of supernatural forces place the townsfolk in direct danger, their only hope in stopping the mayhem and finding will lies in the powerful abilities of a mysterious young girl who escaped the facility.
This series is created by brothers Matt and Ross Duffer (Hidden), and they also write/direct 6 out of the 8 episodes/chapters of this first season. Chapter One kicks things off by enveloping us into the main protagonists, namely Will, his mother Joyce, his brother Jonathan, his friends Mike, Dustin, and Lukas, and the person who will take over for Luke in his disappearance, Eleven. A breach at the nearby government research facility unleashes an inter-dimensional creature that takes Will and inadvertently allows Eleven to escape. When she comes across the boys (Mike, Dustin, and Lukas) she is taken in by them as one of their own. As it becomes apparent she may have information that could lead them to Will’s whereabouts they begin to work with her in bringing him back. She doesn’t just have information though. She also has some supernatural abilities that will be put to good use. Joyce Byers is the true star of the story and it is her character that goes through the most of pretty much everything. Will’s disappearance leaves her devastated, but little hints that he is still out there somewhere leave her fighting to get him back at all costs. These hints are subtle at first and leave her looking like a lunatic, especially when Will is legally presumed dead, but they grow in intensity as the chapters fly by. These hints eventually become so profound that they involve the town’s police chief Jim Hopper (David Harbour), who also lost a child of his own years ago. He becomes a more central element to the story as we get into the later chapters, with his character leading the charge in what is going on behind those fortified government walls. Everyone has their own demons to face. This also applies to Eleven, as her gifts come with internal consequences. It is hard to go further into the story without giving away some spoilers that could ruin some of the series’ major surprises. Instead, I’ll focus more on the writing and directing execution.
With the Duffer brothers leading the way the series’ writers do a good job of giving us a nostalgic series filled with constant Easter egg references to the horror films we grew up with. You will see lots of references to Stephen King’s works, as well as Alien, The Thing, and The Evil Dead. Sometimes it is just as simple as a character reading a Stephen King novel or a teen with an Evil Dead poster in his room, but at times films like Alien and The Thing are referenced in a more direct homage. My only gripe with these references to some of horror’s most horrifying films is the story lacked tenacity. Yeah it involves children and they are only capable of so much horror, but in such films of yesteryear the antagonists provided the carnage the youngsters could not. That isn’t the case here. I loved the creature and the things it did, it just did not do them enough. There are very few kills tallied by the monster and there wasn’t much gore to compliment them. I am aware that this may not have been the goal of the filmmakers as this series is heavy in science fiction, and maybe more so than it is horror, but nonetheless I would have greatly preferred more juice in the mix.
Aside from that, there are no other gripes with Stranger Things. The writers penned solid characters that came and went as they needed to, which lessened the likelihood for wasted characters simply taking up space. With only 8 chapters you are only going to get so much development for the characters. I feel that if the series had been extended to 12 chapters it would have fared better character-wise for everyone other than Joyce Byers, Jim Hopper, and Steve Harrington in the later episodes. We would have probably been given more information about the creature and Eleven as well. Not every chapter in the series will center on it, with some of them focusing more on the drama surrounding Joyce and Will’s disappearance. Because it is a series you will see more drama than your average sci-fi/horror film. This isn’t a bad thing though as this drama is well-written and is sure to pull at your heart as Joyce’s obsession with finding Will eats at her to the core. The use of the government facility and its secrets had my interest piqued, but much like the use of the creature I was left wanting more. This is another instance of where additional chapters would have probably satisfied this interest. Keep in mind this is a personal preference and not really a balk against the series. Either way, a second season has been confirmed.
The direction of the series is fantastic and definitely the biggest reason behind why I enjoyed it. To start, they do a damn good job of recreating that nostalgic feel I highly enjoy from these stories. The musical soundtrack is a winner with many of its fans, and it is complimented with amazing atmosphere that left me feeling like a kid again despite not growing up in rural Indiana. Filmed in Georgia (while set in Indiana), the locations used provided a solemn feel that left me knowing that the town would be on its own when things got ugly. The sets used are expertly lit to where dark corners and placement of shadows provided for a visually engaging experience. This atmosphere also complimented the scenes where the creature would make its way into our world. I really enjoyed the look of the creature and was pleased with the horror it delivered. While I personally wanted more violence to kick things up a notch I do feel that the creature was executed very well and found myself genuinely creeped out a few times. The death scenes were also a win and occurred during drawn-out sequences that upped the ante, which I guess somewhat made up for the lack of gore. The testament to the direction of this series lies in the execution of the actors and their characters. I have never been a big fan of Wynona Ryder, but she is beyond exemplary here. Her character annoyed me at times with how outlandish she was, but that doesn’t detract from the performance behind it. Every other actor held their own and helped move the story, but Wynona and David Harbour steal the show. I just wish the creature would have joined them.
Overall, Season One of Stranger Things is a fantastic experience that I highly suggest to all. It will obviously appeal to those who lived in the era, yet this is a well-executed sci-fi/horror/drama that we can all relate to in more ways than one. With expert direction and an engaging story blending addicting elements like government conspiracy, creatures, and family drama, you don’t want to miss this.