The Netflix series that flew in pretty much under the radar and is now the water cooler show of the summer feels like one of the best Stephen King adaptations ever – even though the author has nothing to do with Stranger Things.
Of course the eight part series doesn’t just reference King, there are a lot more ingredients mixed into this charming concoction – everything from Alien and Aliens, John Carpenter movies (plus a massively Carpenter-inspired score, by Kyle Dixon & Michael Stein), The Gate, The Monster Squad, Blow Out, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Scanners, Videodrome and a whole lot more. It’s also a love letter to the 1980s movies of Steven Spielberg, particularly E.T.; The Extra Terrestrial and The Goonies, as well as to the decade itself (during which the show is set).
But most of all, the film calls back to Stephen King books, films and TV series such as Firestarter, The Tommyknockers, Stand By Me and many more. Creators/co-producers and directors Matt and Ross Duffer get to the heart of what makes King’s work so successful, by giving us ordinary, down-to-earth (and decidedly blue collar) characters who we come to care for. It seems like a simple trick, but it’s one that proves elusive to many.
When 12-year-old Will Byers vanishes, his mother, Joyce, becomes frantic and tries to find him, while the local Police Chief, Jim Hopper begins his own investigation. The very next day a mysterious girl with strange abilities appears. These events soon start to involve others in the small town, including a dark government agency with their own agenda involving these two children.
The casting here, by Carmen Cuba, deserves special mention and is superb. The children give really likeable and heartfelt performances, with special mention going to Millie Bobby Brown, Gaten Matarazzo, Caleb McLaughlin and Finn Wolfhard.
Every character gets moments to shine, and even those we’re supposed to dislike get real moments of humanity. The biggest exception to this is chief antagonist Dr. Martin Brenner, played by Matthew Modine (channeling David Cronenberg in Clive Barker’s Nightbreed, perhaps?), who remains cold and unknowable. I’m not certain if this is a deliberate choice of the production but it serves to leave something of a hole at the centre of things.
Of the adults, both Winona Ryder, as Joyce, and David Harbour, as Jim Hopper, give very strong, anchoring performances. Hopper really is the quintessential Stephen King protagonist, the cracked and frayed working man who becomes heroic despite his frailties.
Mixing horror and science fiction with big dollops of humour and heart (the relationships between the four central children are not only relatable but warm and very funny, and there are some real tear-inducing moments between them), Stranger Things, despite a small, niggling feeling of anti-climax, tells a mostly satisfactory, self-contained story – though I’m sure its surprise success will have many viewers calling for more – and there are certainly enough threads left hanging.
While there’s nothing startlingly original here, the way these ingredients are prepared feels both fresh and familiar, and the show is a hoot for those who know and love any of the productions I’ve mentioned (or just the 1980s) but more than stands on its own feet to provide a summer surprise which will keep you glued to your sofa.
King himself took to Twitter to praise the show, saying “Watching STRANGER THINGS is like watching Steve King’s Greatest Hits. I mean that in a good way”, and if it’s good enough for the master of horror, well…