Retro, nostalgic, even rad; all apt keywords that could easily describe Netflix’s new show and 80’s horror-themed throwback Stranger Things. With only 8 episodes, Stranger Things’ creators - the Duffer Brothers, whose credits include the respectable indie horror flick Hidden - attempt to mash up beloved tropes from recognizable 80s flicks such as The Thing, The Goonies , E.T., and Firestarter (among other Stephen King novels-turned-movies). The reviews overall have been positive, and the creators are hoping for Netflix to greenlight a second season.
While I could sit here and offer my favorable review of this mini-series for a variety reasons – among those, the great performances by leads Wynona Rider and David Harbour, not to mention the eerie set pieces, the downright scary scenarios unraveled in each mystery-turning plot point, and its “retro-cool,” casio-inspired soundtrack – I’d prefer to look at Stranger Things as horror revisionist history.
Here’s what I mean.
Consider the mash-up of familiar plots. The series opens to a game of Dungeons & Dragons played by four young middle schoolers. After a near 9-hour game, the boys disperse on bicycle to their respective suburban homes, but one does not make it after a brief encounter with a monster-like figure. The small Indiana town is rattled when the townsfolk realize the young boy, named Will, really is missing, and a massive search party searches the woods to no avail.
Meanwhile, another young character appears, a girl who we learn was labeled – not named in any traditional sense – Eleven, and she possesses super powers imparted to her by scientific experiments performed by what is assumed a clandestine government or wealthy private organization. By the end of episode 1, the three boys team up with Eleven (who they have renamed Elle) and who may have information on Will’s whereabouts, as well as information that could unravel how her experiments affect the entire town.
Familiar 80’s tropes? You betcha. That’s what the Duffer Brothers wanted going in to this project, for that is part of the fun. Whether you, the audience, find the premise compelling to binge through 8 episodes (I knocked it out in a day), keep in mind that all the fun and clichés of the 1980s have been repurposed for modern sensibilities. Everything from the gender roles, to the nuclear family are constructed without the inherent gender biases seen in horror 35 years ago. One father figure in the series appears aloof and uninterested in his wife and kids. He’s the typical lazy dad, seen as a staple in yesteryear, more of a clownish patriarch for today’s audience. Winona Ryder’s character, the single-mother who has just lost her youngest son, doesn’t boil down to the typical eccentric mother in dire need of (in this case) the depressed, drug and alcohol addicted sheriff played by David Harbour. Instead, the two work well as portraying the complexities of down-in-the-dumps characters.
There is even an interesting (and revisionist) jock-ish, douchebag boyfriend character who appears only interested in sex, but – without giving too much away – is much more nuanced and sensitive. This subplot even has a commentary on the state of bullying in America, once a staple of 80s flicks, especially Lucas, and how we are painfully aware in the 21st century of its consequences.
This leads me to the boys, our young protagonists propelling the action forward. I could not help but immediately blurt out a comment to my wife after viewing the opening Dungeons & Dragons scene. To paraphrase: “It’s funny how if this film actually did appear in the mid-80s, the audience would immediately label these kids as nerds and dorks, and any bullying they encounter would not only be welcomed but justified.” In a world where Game of Thrones and Lord of the Rings - two fantasy genres once bastardized and buried in the basement for boys like these - becomes mainstream popular culture, we can now see these kids as ahead of their times. Not to mention their constant bickering about comic books, another unwritten maxim that only nerds read comics, is ironic with the proliferation of comic movie franchises and media swarms around Comic Con.
And hey, all this revisionist history isn’t a bad thing. What it tells us is that 1980s horror is indeed a special era, marred not necessarily by society’s shortcomings highlighted by today’s political and social mores. Instead, what Stranger Things celebrates is the creativity that was borne out of those shortcomings– the bully, the Cold War, the rise in single parenting, crime, and so on. What I was left feeling after finishing this series was not a sense of dread but halcyon for these characters of a previous generation, who never really knew what they were living through, but knew to do the right thing when facing darkness.