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Review - Stranger Things

Stranger Things is a Netflix original eight part TV series that is a love letter to Steven Spielberg and those 80's supernatural classics that, if you are of a certain age would eagerly pop into your family's video recorder and play over and over again.

Set in 1983 Indiana, the plot of Stranger Things begins with a young boy vanishing into thin air. As friends, family and local police search for answers, they are drawn into an extraordinary mystery involving top­ secret government experiments, terrifying supernatural forces and one very strange little girl.

Stranger Things stars: Winona Ryder (Joyce Byers), David Harbour (Chief Hopper), Finn Wolfhard (Mike Wheeler), Natalia Dyer (Nancy Wheeler), Charlie Heaton (Jonathan Byers), Millie Brown (Eleven), Caleb McLaughlin (Lucas Sinclair), Gaten Matarazzo (Dustin Henderson), Cara Buono (Karen Wheeler) and Matthew Modine (Dr. Brenner)

The kids in Stranger Things really do steal the show and all act like your typical geeky 80's kid would act like, playing Dungeons and Dragons, riding BMX bikes and wielding walkie talkies.  In casting the kids, Ross Duffer says, “There weren’t any other kids who could do these roles. These are the kids. We searched all over the world and auditioned thousands of young actors. Once we found our four main kids, they really inspired our writing and the characters.” For instance, Gaten (Dustin) does not yet have a front teeth due to a condition called Cleidocranial dysplasia, so the Duffers incorporated this into the character’s backstory.

The series is directed by The Duffer Brothers who don't have, relatively speaking a huge career behind them but Stranger Things can easily be regarded as their breakout crowning achievement.  From the opening shot of episode one to the very last scene in episode eight we are treated to a TV series that obviously has taken influences from the classic horrors of the 1980s and the Steven Spielberg connection is abundant throughout.  The strong mother, the suburban existence, a close community feel and the BMX riding kids who don't quite fit in are all present.  Matt Duffer tells us "We have so much nostalgia and love for this era. We really wanted to see something on television that was in the vein of the classic films we loved growing up: Spielberg, John Carpenter, as well as the novels of Stephen King. And to us, what makes all of these stories so great to us -- and so resonant -- is that they all explore that magical point where the ordinary meets the extraordinary. When we were growing up, we were just regular kids, living in the suburbs of North Carolina, playing Dungeons and Dragons with our nerdy friends. But when we watched these films and read these books, we felt transported. Suddenly our lives had the potential for adventure -- maybe tomorrow we would find a treasure map in the attic, maybe my brother would vanish into the TV screen. We really want to capture that feeling with Stranger Things. We want to bring that feeling to people who grew up on those films -- and we also want to bring it to a whole new generation.”

Having watched the series myself, I can totally feel the Spielberg influence as well as a John Carpenter vibe especially the retro music which from time to time reminds me of Halloween or Creepshow.  The look of Stranger Things is gloriously retro with toys from the era (look out for a scene with a Kenner Millennium Falcon) and a town that seems to be taken straight from 1983.  In fact Stranger Things was filmed both on sound stages as well as on location in Atlanta.

Production designer Chris Trujillo was tasked with creating the world of Hawkins, Indiana, in Georgia and set in 1983 – was no small feat.  Trujillo says about the world the Duffer brothers wanted was “A recreation of what we remembered and loved growing up as kids in the 80s – a reinvention of classic American cinema from the early 80s. This was a dream project for me because this was my world as a kid.”

“Atlanta was actually quite the perfect location to play Hawkins because of its similar typography as well as the treasure troves of set décor we discovered at estate sales,” said Trujillo.  “We’d freak people out! We’d find these amazing homes that look like time capsules from the late 70s and early 80s and go in and go in and basically buy everything, including what was in the junk drawers.”

From Schlitz beer cans to walkie talkies to Dungeons and Dragons to wood paneled station wagons, Stranger Things evokes the 80s in subtle but meaningful ways. “We never wanted it to be ‘in-your-face’ 80s and obvious,” said Trujillo. “The lived-in look was important to us so that it would feel familiar to audiences, and not distract them.”

The opening scene of Stranger Things sees a group of kid playing Dungeons and Dragons which I would like to think was a nod to Steven Spielberg's E.T. which also has a scene with the kids playing a role playing game.  However they weren't allowed to use the term Dungeons and Dragons in the 1982 Spielberg classic due to not being able to obtain the licence to do so.

The Duffers are heavily influenced by Stephen King and Steven Spielberg. Ross says, “We were obsessed with their books and movies because it felt their stories were about people we knew and you throw in the monsters, supernatural and UFOs and it then feels like you’re experiencing it yourself.  We were influenced by so many things - movies, videogames and books, and then we kind of put it in a blender and mixed it up.”

Matt adds, “What’s fun about the show is that it’s a bit of a rollercoaster - it has a little bit of everything. We follow three different generations: kids, teens, and adults. We like to think of each of these generations as existing in a different 80s universe. The adults are in a Spielberg film -- these imperfect individuals who slowly but inevitably come to realize that something very extraordinary is taking place around them. The teens are in an 80s horror film like Halloween or Nightmare on Elm Street, where the pains of high school and the loss of innocence is juxtaposed with supernatural evil. And the kids are in a Stephen King novel, like Stand by Me or It: nerdy outsiders from a small town who have to band together to face this terrifying horror.”

“We want everyone to watch the show,” says Ross. “If you’re a 12-year-old, you can relate to the kids, if you’re a teenager, you can relate to Jonathan and Nancy, and if you’re an adult you can relate to Winona and David’s characters. The kids are based on who we were like as kids playing nerdy games in the basement so I think adults will also see themselves in the kids.”

Even the opening credits have a wonderful retro feel with grainy specs appearing as if you're watching on your VHS (or Betamax.)  The title sequence was inspired by the work of Richard Greenberg, who  designed a number of classic 80s title sequences (including ​ Alien, Altered States, Superman and The Goonies.)

I don't want to give anything away regarding the plot but I can say if you enjoyed the 'monster of the week' X-Files episodes then you will love Stranger Things.  Yes there is a monster but unlike most horror TV and movies, it isn't overused.  We get glimpses of the creature but a lot of the time it's left up to our imagination.  It's not until the final episodes do we truly get to see the 'thing' that is terrorizing the kids and the town.  The monster was achieved through a combination of prosthetics, animatronics,  performance, and CG.

If you've lost faith with the current state of movies and TV, if you think that there's too much CGI these days and not enough suspense and clever camera work, if you think that filmmakers carry the viewer and don't give them chance to use their own imagination then please give Stranger Things a try.  I know you won't be disappointed.  I was gripped throughout all eight episodes and along the way I had a few smiles on my face when I noticed something I had during my childhood.

If Stranger Things had been released in the 80's, I can assure you I would have recorded this on my best VHS tape, broken the recording tab and written in my best handwriting on the spine 'Do Not Record Over.'

Rob Wainfur


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