Stranger Things Review: How Netflix Learned to Love the 80s

Joyce Byers Winona Ryder Stranger ThingsThe Netflix original series Stranger Things was released on July 15, just in time for your summer binge-watching pleasure. The eight-episode series was created by brothers Matt and Ross Duffer. Stranger Things isn’t easily classified, except by the 1980s. The series is set in 1983 and pays tribute to some of the best filmmaking of that era. Stranger Things includes monsters, government experiments, teen romance, heroic sacrifice, family, friendship, and much more. Get some popcorn, grab a friend, and prepare to be scared.

Creature Feature

Demogorgon Stranger ThingsStranger Things brings together horror, science fiction, and government conspiracy to create a monster you really need to be afraid of. It manages to combine these elements extremely well, creating arcs of dramatic tension throughout the eight-episode series. The first episode provides some straight-up horror as we are introduced to a terrifying monster. Stranger Things definitely has a throwback horror vibe. It resonates with older horror flicks that have stood the test of time such as The Exorcist (1973), Jaws (1975), Carrie (1976), Alien (1979), The Shining (1980), Poltergeist (1982), and The Thing (1982). Stranger Things centers on a monster just as frightening as anything you’ve seen in The Thing or Alien, and then adds some other tropes into the mix to create an interesting and complex story. 

People, the Real Monsters

Dr Martin Brenner Stranger ThingsAs well as scaring the bejesus out of us with a mysterious monster, Stranger Things gives us a classic ’80s villain—the US Government. Evil has been released by a Government Research Facility gone wrong, headed by Matthew Modine. Modine has had a long acting career, but he is well-known for ’80s films such as Birdy (1984), Full Metal Jacket (1987), and Vision Quest (1985). Fun fact: Supernatural alum Rob Benedict named his band Louden Swain after Modine’s Vision Quest character. Modine plays the menacing and manipulative Dr. Martin Brenner in Stranger Things by shifting between cold efficiency and calculated warmth.

After years of turning Soviet spies, crime bosses, and cowboys into villains, writers and directors who lived through the Nixon White House Tapes came to realize that the US government is the ultimate baddie. Powerful, difficult to defeat, and filled with mindless bureaucrats who didn’t need a backstory to justify their actions, government characters and agencies became a go-to villain in the 1980s.

When these shadowy government agents are conducting research—it only increases the danger. These experiments can have Eleven Stranger Thingsunanticipated consequences like falling into Altered States (1980), releasing The Thing (1982), or turning into The Fly (1986).

Sure, there are a few tales of the era in which state-sponsored forces turn out to be on the side of good, such as Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) or War Games (1983), but in the 1980s there was a proliferation of villainous figures with the force of the US government behind their actions. If E.T. (1982), Escape from New York (1981), and Repo Man (1984) have taught us anything, it’s that the government can’t be trusted, especially when they arrive wearing hazmat suits.

Stranger Things Characters

Will Stranger ThingsStranger Things has quite a few young characters, but isn’t an adolescent drama. It’s a perplexing story that involves kids, concerned parents, law enforcement, nefarious government agents, and a scary monster. What we’re saying is—it’s complicated, but in a good way.

Lucas Mike Stranger ThingsFour middle-school-age boys, played by Finn Wolfhard (Mike), Gaten Matarazzo (Dustin), Caleb McLaughlin (Lucas), and Noah Schnapp (Will), along with a mysterious girl played by Millie Bobby Brown, are at the heart of the story. Their involvement allows Stranger Things to complement horror with a coming-of-age perspective reminiscent of Stand By Me (1986) and The Goonies (1985). Older siblings, Johnathan (Charlie Heaton) and Nancy (Natalia Dyer) are each facing their own set of teen challenges, but gradually get pulled into the mystery. While events are unfolding they struggle with teen challenges such as belonging, sex, and bullying.

David Harbour plays a sheriff motivated to help solve this mystery, in part because of his own loss and grief. But Stranger Things really hits the bullseye by giving us Winona Ryder as Joyce Byers. This icon of the ’80s and ’90s was in the films Beetlejuice (1988), Heathers (1988), and Edward Scissorhands (1990). Ryder plays this anxious single mother with great intensity and believability.

Joyce Winona Ryder lights Stranger ThingsRyder plays a woman struggling with being a single mother in ways we don’t often see television today. This type of story was something integrated into many shows and movies after the divorce rate began to skyrocket in the 1970s, but today we’re more likely to see stories about the challenge of blended or non-traditional families than we are about single motherhood. Despite the fact that single motherhood continues to be one of the greatest predictors of poverty in the US even today, watching a Ryder play a woman struggling to raise a family while working a low-wage job feels like a throwback to an earlier time. Stranger Things portrays the stress and anxiety that Joyce must deal with, as well as how parentified her older son Jonathan has become in order to help the family survive. It’s a fascinating psychological picture that adds layers to the story.

Stranger Things Music

teens Stranger ThingsThe theme music of Stranger Things, written by Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein, pulls you in immediately with its dramatic yet haunting tune. It has a strong John Carpenter vibe to it, hearkening back to his films The Thing (theme composed by Ennio Morricone) and Escape from New York (theme composed by John Carpenter) and the score he wrote for Halloween (1978).

Music from the 1980s is an important story element in Stranger Things, with The Clash’s “Should I Stay or Should I Go” (1982) reinforcing family connections. The soundtrack reflects the music of the era with songs by Jefferson Airplane, Toto, Modern English, Joy Division, The Bangles, David Bowie, Foreigner, Echo and the Bunnymen, The Smiths, and Tangerine Dream. The songs are not only musically relevant to the period, but placed well within the narrative. The use of New Order’s “Elegia” was a perfect complement in the episode “The Flea and the Acrobat.”

Steve Nancy Stranger ThingsIt’s the 1980s, so there must be a mix tape included in the story. Nothing shows caring quite like taking the time to record awesome songs from a cool assortment of records onto a cassette tape. We’d love to learn what was on that last mixtape. And don’t lie; we know you oldsters still have some of your own mix tapes hidden away in dusty boxes (full disclosure: we have them too). Something made with so much love is hard to throw away.

Life in the ’80s

VHS Stranger Things

VHS box by twitter.com/iamsteelberg

There were a ton of details that The Duffer Brothers and their crew contributed to give Stranger Things the feeling of the era. The classic ’80s fonts used in the title sequence and end credits were fantastic. You don’t have to be a font-nerd who’s watched Helvetica (2007) multiple times appreciate the thoughtfulness that went into the design.

Watching the show is like being dropped back in time. The hair and make-up artists deserve an Emmy for their impressive work replicating the look of the period. The wardrobe choices were appropriately understated so as not to distract (except for that one reindeer sweater).

The kindly and knowledgeable science teacher Mr. Clarke (Randall P. Havens) didn’t represent the ’80s per se, but he did reflect access to knowledge in pre-internet times. Sure, the boys could have used an encyclopedia, but Mr. Clarke cleverly served as their 1980s search engine. Havens played this Yoda-like character a bit tongue-in-cheek, making Mr. Clarke that much more fun to watch.

Dungeons Dragons Stranger ThingsDungeons & Dragons is instrumental in Stranger Things, not only as a plot device to help the kids  understand what’s happening, but also because it’s a reflection of the era. The game was first created in 1974 and people still play today, but the 1980s had to be a peak for D&D play. Smart kids using their imaginations as a form of social interaction seems like a distant memory. These are the kinds of kids clever enough to understand multiple universes, build complicated structures, and come up with plans to rescue their friends. D&D helps to reinforce the bond between them and the ability to work together. Of course, they’re still kids struggling with developmentally-driven emotional changes, so they’re bound to fight sometimes.

Stranger Things Review

Joyce Jonathan Nancy Stranger ThingsIt’s clear that we love the way this series embraces the 1980s, both in terms of set details and the connections the story makes with films of that era. One thing we want to leave you with, though, is that it’s a great story regardless of those factors. Yes, they deepen the series and make it more interesting to some, but even if you’re a millennial who rejects the ethos and culture of the ’80s, there’s a lot of great storytelling going on here. Stranger Things couldn’t be more modern in its mash-up of genres, strong camera work, and complex narrative structure. Stranger Things takes the best elements of the era and makes something completely new. Just be sure to set aside some time for binge-watching, because each episode will leave you on the edge of your seat.

One thought on “Stranger Things Review: How Netflix Learned to Love the 80s

  1. Pingback: Doctor Who Christmas Special Review: The Return of Doctor Mysterio | The Supernatural Fox Sisters

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