Stranger Things (2016)

I know I set out with the intent of writing about the movies I cross off my to-watch list, but considering I rewatched Mad Max: Fury Road twice this past week, I haven’t been cracking down on that list as hard as I’d like. Also, the last two days of my life have been whisked away into the ether by the first season of Stranger Things.

mv5bmjezmdaxotuymv5bml5banbnxkftztgwnzaxmzyzote-_v1_Stranger Things is a Netflix original series that came out just over a week ago, with the entire first season up for streaming. If you can’t tell by the killer artwork and font that looks like it’s ripped straight off of a Stephen King or Sutter Cane novel, Stranger Things is riding aboard the ’80s horror/mystery throwback train. Stranger Things takes place in the sleepy, fictional town of Hawkins, Indiana in 1984. A young boy by the name of Will disappears one night without a trace and soon after, Eleven, a girl with telekinetic and telepathic powers shows up in town. It follows a cast of interesting and dynamic characters including Will’s three best friends, Will’s mother and brother, and the Hawkins chief of police as they all try to get to the bottom of the disappearance in their own ways. As they dig deeper and follow the clues down a rabbit hole, they learn that there’s a much darker and more sinister plot going on in Hawkins than just a lost child.

Stranger Things hits all the right notes. The story is fantastic, the acting is great (even the many child actors put on good enough performances not to distract you from the show), and it pays homage to mystery, suspense, and horrors stories of both the ’80s and the last decade (the most obvious modern reference being Under the Skin). Stranger Things feels like a melting pot of Stephen King (who is given multiple shout outs in the show), John Carpenter, Steven Spielberg, with just a twist of H.P. Lovecraft on top. The entire premise is really reminiscent of the oft overlooked Abrams/ Spielberg flick, Super 8. There are moments of legitimate white-knuckling suspense and it definitely is a horror story, I wouldn’t call the series scary. So if you’re someone who doesn’t like horror because you don’t like gore or jump scares, don’t worry because Stranger Things offers very little of both. Besides, you’ll be too wrapped up in the characters and setting to care. Stranger Things is definitely a stepping stone for people looking to get into horror.

The best part (besides the surprisingly in depth Dungeons and Dragons references) of Stranger Things is the cast of characters. The writers of the show understand that an audience will follow any story almost anywhere if the characters are good. They’re all nuanced and interesting, but aren’t so convoluted that you forget who is related to who and what everyone’s motivation is (cough cough, Game of Thones, cough cough). Will’s mother Joyce Byers (played by Winona Ryder) and chief of police Jim Hopper (David Harbour) are particularly compelling. Refusing to believe her son is gone forever, Ryder shows off the confusion, stubbornness, and desperation of Joyce with both perfect subtlety and explosive outbursts, that never cross the line into overacting. Chief Hopper’s history is slowly revealed throughout the series, building layer upon layer onto his character, moving him from a kind of dickish, sadsack police officer into a more selfless and multi-dimensional (heh) human being. The rest of the characters aren’t as intricate as Joyce or Hopper but they’re all fleshed out and compelling in their own ways. One reason I don’t watch many TV shows is because while the writers of the shows usually make their characters Mary Sues with one fatal flaw, the characters in Stranger Things are flawed but their shortcomings are regular, human things. The characters in this show behave like real people, so when the stakes keep raising as the story unfolds, we really feel for a root for these characters and hope for them to pull through in the end.

Once things start picking up and the mystery and suspense come to the forefront of the story, certain plot points are a little predictable, especially if you’ve steeped yourself in stories like this before. Not to say Stranger Things is written badly, far from it, but I find that it excels in short term or scene to scene suspense than longer term suspense across the entire season. Eight episodes isn’t quite enough to build momentum and develop an overarching sense of dread or mystique that a story like Stranger Things’ so desperately calls for. The only other major gripe I have deals with some less than stellar CGI. Now, I can hear the collective internet groaning, so stop it. I can’t find any info on the budget of the show, but since they were going for an ’80s vibe, I feel like there should have been more practical effects used. They proved they could develop amazing looking sets, but certain small things looked poor and the upside down monster in particular stuck out like a sore thumb when in full, unobstructed view. Considering the design of the creature, the directors should have reached out to and hired on the one and only Javier Botet to physically play it. The dude is horror’s Andy Serkis, scaring the shit out of audiences worldwide, and he deserves to be in more great projects.

So, if you haven’t gotten the message: I liked Stranger Things. I liked it a lot. I want you to watch it, and I want you to tell your friends to watch it. Is it perfect? No, but that doesn’t matter. It’s an original concept and the people involved deserve more attention and money to make more cool things. Also, we need more horror shows that aren’t The Walking Dead (the comic is better, fight me) or American Horror Story (sorry not sorry, goth kids). As of right now, there are talks of a second season for Stranger Things, which is awesome. From what I’ve read and heard, the second season will continue the story of the first season, going deeper into the world they’ve started to create. I would also be totally cool with Stranger Things being an anthology show, but I love the characters so much I’m happy to see what other adventures they can get in.

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