Writers: The Duffer Brothers, Jessie Nickson-Lopez, Justin Doble, Paul Dichter, Jessica Mecklenburg, Alison Tatlock
Cast: Winona Ryder, David Harbour, Matthew Modine, Finn Wolfhard, Millie Bobby Brown, Gaten Matarazzo, Caleb McLaughlin, Charlie Heaton, Natalia Dyer, Joe Kerry, Ross Partridge
Running time: 395mins (8 episodes)
What’s the story: The town of Hawkins, 1983. Joyce Byers (Ryder) is convinced something supernatural has taken her son Will, and she and her son Jonathan (Heaton) enlist troubled sheriff Jim Hopper (Harbour) to help rescue him. Will’s friends Mike, Lucas, and Dustin (Wolfhard, McLaughlin & Matarazzo) conduct their own search, and believe mysterious young girl Eleven (Brown) could hold the key to the mystery.
What’s the verdict: Fan fiction taken to its logical extreme, there is not one original element in The Duffer Brothers’ Stranger Things. But this love letter to the work of Steven Spielberg, Stephen King and John Carpenter (and 80s pop culture in general) is a delight.
Like Super 8 before it, Stranger Things is proof that homage can score a bullseye if executed with brains, heart and a genuine talent for spinning wonder and menace from small town mundanity. Christmas lights are routinely employed to chilling effect…
The story is the product of placing Jaws, ET, Close Encounters, IT, Firestarter, Carrie, Halloween, The Thing and Starman into a Fly telepod and writing down what emerges.
This is also the kind of show that rewards knowing why X-Men #134 is casually dropped into conversation. Or why Joyce teases Will about a fear of clowns. Or spotting that Sheriff Hopper’s uniform seems to be Amity Island issue. Or that Hopper’s name is a nod to an unseen character in Predator. Or that the wintry visual style and synth score could belong in any classic John Carpenter film.
Hell, there are even trace elements of the forgotten early 90s Stephen King mini-series Golden Years in the shadowy government organisation subplot.
Yet, there is nothing duff and everything Duffer about Stanger Things. Hitherto best known for scripting a batch of Wayward Pines episodes, their ambitious plotting, well-rounded characters and the fine performances they elicit from a largely unknown cast should place them firmly on the A-list.
Ryder’s tremulous-though-resilient working class single mom is the best role she’s had in years. Her weapon of choice is a Shining style axe, and it’s remarkable how well it suits the diminutive actress.
Harbour (a perennially “what-was-he-in” actor) also sinks his teeth into the flavourful role of the sheriff, whose eight episode character arc is a series highlight.
Typical good guy Matthew Modine gets to indulge in soft-spoken ambiguous menace as a possible big bad in the employ of the off-the-books government organisation.
Ambitiously, The Duffer Brothers juggle three different age groups across intertwining plotlines. Teen angst comes courtesy of Joyce’s son Jonathan (British actor Heaton), a protective personality but not above a spot of long lens perving over Mike’s older sister Nancy (Mia Sara lookalike Dyer).
But, the director siblings have most time for the youngsters. As the trio of lads hunting for their missing pal, Wolfhard, McLaughlin and Matarazzo are the heart of the show.
Whether arguing over Dungeons & Dragons, debating the logistics of having more than one best friend or protecting the damaged, mysterious Eleven, they keep events buoyant whenever the story threatens to sag.
And with Eleven the Duffers are determined to create a character as memorable as Carrie White or Firestarter’s Charlie McGee. Brit actress Brown has few words but lets her eyes do the talking, whether recalling painful memories or revealing her rage. We’ll say no more.
Like Stephen King and his doorstop novels, the directors allow themselves the broad canvas of a near eight hour running time to bring their town to life. Each episode is chaptered like a long lost King novel – episode four is actually titled The Body, a reference to the novella Rob Reiner turned into Stand By Me.
This space allows supporting characters to be sketched in interesting shades, including Nancy’s kinda jock boyfriend (Kelly) and Joyce’s estranged husband (Partridge).
As the title suggests, supernatural shenanigans are rife in Stranger Things. The big reveal of what’s going on won’t rock the world of anyone familiar with 80s fantasy cinema. But the thrills and chills and neat nods to A Nightmare on Elm Street style home booby-traps will leave most viewers of a certain age glowing with nostalgia.
Difficult to judge how those who didn’t receive their formative cinematic experiences during the 1980s will react to all this. Maybe they’ll be less forgiving of the plot holes that emerge as the series races to its conclusion. And time will tell if The Duffer Brothers can deliver anything beyond superbly realised homage.
But for now, we just have one question. Netflix – where we can get a copy of Kyle Lambert’s superb Drew Struzan style poster art?
Stranger Things is available to watch now on Netflix