Both Donnie Darko and Super 8 tried (successfully I think) to tap into a poorly defined but recognisable aesthetic: small town/suburban/exurban America, the 70s/80s, a normal family life contrasted with something weird, threatening and unworldly. The obvious influence is Speilberg, particularly Close Encounters and ET but also films he was associated with such as Poltergeist, Gremlins and The Goonies. Beyond Speilberg, adaptations of Stephen King such as The Dead Zone and It, also form part of a quasi-canon along with horror films such as A Nightmare on Elm Street.
Stranger Things is a neat distillation of that brew with some additional 1990s flavourings of Twin Peaks and the X-Files. It doesn’t make any pretence at hiding its influences, which in itself is Spielbergian.
In a small 1980s town, a group of four nerdy boys spend their days playing Dungeons & Dragons, annoying their science teacher and playing with shortwave radio. Their world is upended when one of them suddenly disappears one night – taken by something. But if their friend is dead, how come his mum can still sense his presence? And what’s with the weird fenced off secret government installation? And who is the apparently mute girl with a shaved head and wearing a hospital gown and who is she running from?
Surprisingly, the show sets up the pieces of the mystery very quickly, perhaps more quickly than viewers would expect. It isn’t a slow burn with mounting paranoia, multiple possible explanations or many tricks to make the viewer spend much time speculating whether a character is actually delusional. Instead, the show wears its SF on its sleeve. It is not much of a spoiler to say; yes it is a creepy psychic experiment into parallel dimensions gone wrong.
Frankly, this is a smart move. In part, it lets the genre-savvy kids meet the psychic girl Eleven/Elle early and allows her to show off her powers. The show also assumes that the audience is aware of the influences above and knows that any drawn out speculation of what is behind everything won’t work for a show you can binge watch on Netflix.
The real trick is that the tension is maintained throughout. Winona Ryder as the already somewhat flakey mum of the missing boy is particularly compelling. Desperate to be believed and knowing how absurd she must sound, she manages to convey grief, despair and the torture of not being believed, while also maintaining a fortitude that makes you want to applaud.
No, nothing original here – except capturing in a bottle a sub-sub-genre and demonstrating it brilliantly.
Also, Eleven (Millie Bobby-Brown) should be the next Doctor Who.