Guest Author: Erin Wilson
There’s a good reason your millennial friends and family have been obsessively posting about Netflix’s latest original series, Stranger Things, on social media. The Duffer Brothers, credited both with writing and directing, know how to tap into the nostalgia market. They want you to watch the series and fondly remember everything you loved about being afraid as a kid. The show doesn’t just take place in the 80s; it looks like it was filmed in the 80s. From the music, to the retro title font, to the grainy filters, the Duffer Brothers have done for VHS horror movies what Tarantino and Rodriguez did for grindhouse films of the 1970s. The storyline, too, culls from a whole host of horror, sci-fi, and cult classics that millennials grew up watching at sleepovers, including Poltergeist, Alien, Firestarter, It, The Goonies, and ET.
I want to confine most of my review to a discussion of the cast and aesthetics, lest I spoil any major plot points. In the most basic sense, the show is about the mysterious disappearance of 12-year-old Will Byers, who vanished on his way home from a rousing 10-hour game of Dungeons and Dragons with his best friends, Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin), and Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo). These boys could not be more perfect as our imperfect heroes, and it’s impossible to watch them and not think of The Goonies. In each of them, the nerd inside all of us can find a counterpart. Mike is awkward and smart. He has a clueless father and an overbearing mother. Lucas is a little too intense and has an unusual assemblage of Vietnam-era military weapons, no doubt from a veteran father. Dustin, easily the funniest and most vocal of the group, suffers from cleidoncranial dysplasia, which causes him to speak with a lisp. They love D&D and Tolkien; they bicker; they’re bullied; they’re adorable.
Just as Will disappears, a mysterious girl appears in the town (Millie Bobby Brown). She wears a hospital gown, has shorn hair, and has the number 11 tattooed on her arm. She’s barely verbal, and it’s clear early on that she has a variety of special powers, including telekinesis. Brown doesn’t have a lot of lines, but she’s excellent as this scared and powerful child. Throughout the show, she’s being pursued by an assemblage of menacing men-in-black types, led by Dr. Martin Brenner (Matthew Modine), a scientist at Hawkins Laboratory. Modine’s performance is a little lacking, largely due to the flatness of his character, but a chilly disposition is typical for the mad-scientist trope. Brown’s character, though, is clearly terrified of him, and fans of The X-Files, or conspiracy theories in general, are likely to enjoy this thread of the story.
Naturally, Will’s mother Joyce, played by Winona Ryder, initiates the search. I can’t remember the last time I saw Winona Ryder in anything, and I have little doubt that part of the motivation in casting her is another move to appeal to millennial nostalgia. Regardless, she’s wonderful in this role, and it’s a difficult one to play. She will inevitably be compared to JoBeth Williams’s Diane from Poltergeist, but Joyce has a far more difficult path and, at times, she’s heartbreaking to watch. She’s a single mother of two boys, abandoned by a sleazy ex-husband. She’s clearly struggling financially and, when she believes that Will is communicating with her through electricity in their house, people around her begin to think she’s insane. Some of my favorite small moments from the series are flashbacks depicting Joyce and Will. We see her as a supportive mother to an odd, but creative, little boy. I found myself getting choked up as we watch her recall taking Will to see a horror movie (Poltergeist, appropriately), proposing to buy him new crayons so he can properly draw fireballs, and struggling to remember how to pronounce “Radagast,” the password for Will’s clubhouse.
For my money, however, the breakout performance of the series comes from David Harbour, who plays Police Chief Jim Hopper. He’s playing some sort of cross between Bill Pardy of Slither and Jimmy McNulty of The Wire. He’s a small-town sheriff with a serious drinking problem, and he wants nothing more than to nurse his hangover. He is not accustomed to handling a missing-persons case, and he initially shows little interest in Will’s disappearance. Throughout the show’s eight episodes, though, he experiences the most growth, and many of the series’ most shocking moments belong to him.
The only significant criticism I have of the show is the use of CGI for the show’s otherworldly creature. No one loves a good monster more than I do, and I so wanted the Duffer Brothers to keep the nostalgia alive by exclusively using latex and makeup, in the spirit of Hellraiser and The Thing. It’s a little jarring to see an image generated by a computer when, only moments ago, we were looking at a flesh-and-blood creature. There is also some narrative drag created by a storyline involving Mike’s older sister Nancy (Natalia Dyer) and Will’s teenage brother Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) that is only compelling once it completely merges with the search for Will. On the whole, though, the series is thoroughly pleasurable. My only regret, now, is binge-watching it. If I had the discipline, I would have forced myself to watch it one episode a week, in the manner that I once watched It and The Stand with my family. I can only recommend that those of you who haven’t watched yet consider weekly viewing. For myself, I can only hope for another season.
Erin Wilson holds a Ph.D. from the University of Missouri and is a Visiting Affiliate Assistant Professor of literature at Loyola University Maryland. Her research and writing concerns 19th-century British literature, medical humanities, horror studies, and representations of the body in literature and film. Erin runs a blog, Night of the Spoiler, in which she spoils movies so that her friends who don’t get out much can pretend they’ve seen them. She can be followed on Twitter at @benadrowsy.