Stranger Things: A Different Construction

Now that many people have finished up Netflix’s Stranger Things, there have been numerous lists of how to put together the Stranger Things cocktail. It’s three parts Goonies to one part Jaws, and so on. I understand why people are seeing it this way, but the construction is a bit off. The show isn’t a cocktail or a soup. It’s not even a salad. In less capable hands this might have been the case. The show “borrows” so heavily on many 80s movies that this could have just been a mix of all these different, preexisting ideas. But they are put assembled so deftly that it’s a cake, rather than cocktail. The pieces build on each other and the result is more than just the sum of the parts. Complex baking rather than simple mixing. Instead of having everything thrown in to see what sticks the Duffer brothers borrowed the familiar forms but weave them into a shared universe of nostalgia.

Each character in this show experiences a different genre of movies. These influences (slasher, a group of kids growing up, a cop investigating a strange small town) are actually who these people are. And it’s these dissonant but recognizable themes that lay the groundwork for something bizarre and complex that we can still grasp incredibly quickly. While the story may not be the most original thing, these writers have just shown that they can tell nearly any story.

Joyce Byers (Winona Ryder)

Her child has gone missing and yet she is still seemingly able to communicate with him from within her own home. He’s also being stalked by a malevolent force that’s on the “other side” with him. While there’s no Zelda Rubinstein to guide her as she desperately seeks her child, this is Poltergeist for Joyce. Perhaps it’s that lack of guide that further isolates Joyce and pushes her to desperation so quickly. Her ex, the sheriff, and even her other son. No matter how ‘supportive’ her circle is, they’re all still telling her she’s wrong and crazy.

Jim Hopper (David Harbour)
Twin Peaks

Investigation in a small town and things aren’t as they seem. Tonally there’s that sense of paranoia that builds up as the normal world around the cop is slowly stripped away.

Mike, Dustin, Lucas (Finn Wolfhard, Gaten Matarazzo, Caleb McLaughlin)

People have been saying this is a very Goonies inspired show, but it’s not. After the first or second episode there’s nothing really Goonies left. Instead, it’s a take on Explorers. This flick is a weird little sci-fi movie that follows three boys as they try to make sense of a very strange, shared experience. Goonies is a lighthearted, nearly satirical, take on an adolescent group. Explorers is very much about three specific kids and how they relate to each other. Goonies is Indiana Jones for/with kids. Explorers is a bit… darker. The relationships are more of the focus, and the story is much more prone to strange turns and meta-commentary. It was directed by Joe Dante, the man who gave the world Gremlins, Gremlins 2, The ‘Burbs, and Small Soldiers. While often about childhood and small-town life, his movies tend to have less sentimentality and more of a pervasive sense of something lurking just under the surface. It’s that perspective that matches up the kids in Stranger Things with Explorers, and what lets their movie bleed into the other, more horrific, genres of the rest of the cast.

Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown)

This one was almost too easy. A character actually name drops Stephen King when Joyce and Jim are investigating who Eleven is. She’s a girl who shows some sort of latent psychic gift. A government research group abducts her and tries to hone her skills into a weapon. She escapes, using their own project against them. It’s very much a King-ly plot, with the main difference being that Stranger Things replaces King’s discomfiting obsession with children and sexuality with that of friendship. While Eleven and Mike do develop something or a romance, her power is tied to her growing sense of camaraderie and protection over the boys she meets.

Mike, Dusting, Lucas, Eleven

A group of kids discover a nearly mute being, about their height, who has telekinetic powers and eventually helps them escape from a shadowy group of government agents. And there’s a sweet bicycle vs. agents chase and escape scene:

E.T. - flying

While the original E.T. was intense, especially considering that it was intended for children as well as adults, Stranger Things has upped the ante. This is a perfect shift that came about by mixing in darker genres. When E.T. was re-released there was a bit of a dust-up when guns were altered into walkie-talkies. While I’m happy they changed them back, it was a perfect example of how family films are currently out of favor, and the new dichotomy is now kid or adult movies. E.T. resided in that in-between market that no longer exists, and therefore had to fall on one side or the other. Stranger Things can walk that darker line, and even come down on the other side, because it’s technically new material, and because it pulls tone and timbre from its other influences. Putting the kids in more danger within Stranger Things comes across as less problematic than keeping guns away from children in E.T.

Stranger Things - flip

Nancy Wheeler & Jonathan Byers (Natalia Dyer, Charlie Heaton)

Teenagers, while exploring their sexuality, are hunted by a faceless killer. I was tempted to add in Friday the 13th to continue with the faceless aspect but that’s just a clear hunt. Stranger Things, as well as Halloween, play with the structure of the hunt, and by the end of both there is clearly a cat-and-mouse aspect to everything.

And again, this grows beyond the source material. By the end the teens aren’t just evading the monster, and go beyond simply fighting back. They’re proactive and are setting traps. This behavior is much more common in modern and post-modern horror than much of what came out of the 80s.  It’s actually hard to draw too much of a parallel because of how this upends the tropes of slasher films even while residing inside of one. Nancy and Jon aren’t really the targets of the killer. It’s anyone who bleeds (meta-commentary on loss of virginity?). But that means that they could be seen as stumbling across someone else’s horror film. Maybe it’s really Steve who’s in the slasher film and Nancy and Jon pull the whole dynamic sideways. They’re in pursuit, rather than escape, since nearly the moment they discover it exists.

Will Byers (Noah Schnapp)
A Nightmare on Elm Street

I nearly went modern with this aspect but hooked it back into the 80s at the last minute. He’s trapped in a nightmare that closely mirrors his home, but is empty of all life, save for the monster that is hunting him. While Silent Hill seems more of an exact match for his mirror world, eternally raining ash, even Silent Hill seems to sprout from A Nightmare. Silent Hill has an invasion of evil invade a familiar, yet darkened, landscape. Nightmare takes comforting concepts and twists them into danger. While the Underneath looks similar to the horrific version of Silent Hill, it’s desolate. There’s no worry about a creeping army around every corner. Its simply one killer violating the world that used to be Will’s home.

Will, Joyce, and JimAlien

And of course once he’s discovered the Alien parallels are blatant. The eggs, the cocooning, and breeding by way of forced incubation via the mouth. There’s even a somewhat gentler version of the chest-bursting scene toward the end of the final episode. That stalking in a dark space, that singular threat that on the hunt, and the body horror of being forced to grow its larva: Alien all the way. It’s hard to read too much into this setting since it shows up so briefly during the final act. I’m assuming this will play out more in a second season, possibly with strong strains of The Thing woven in.

This is actually one of the aspects I’m most excited to see explored. Delving into the worlds that the monster inhabits, as well as why it appears to be the only other creature in the Underneath while clearly being fertile, is ripe for some serious world-building. We’ve seen a lot of what is during season one of Stranger Things. The Alien setting will most likely be the frame for what has been.

After writing this I found out that the production notes have the series broken into three directorial styles: the adults in a Spielberg world, the teenagers in one of John Carpenter, and the kids in a Stephen King construct. What’s sort of brilliant about this as a shared universe is that it manages to weave all these recognizable tropes, themes, and styles together without having the weight of unrelated continuity. That means that the changes put in to this world (né worlds) serve to deepen the network of relationships of the stories and characters without weakening the source material. There’s no Alien aficionado complaining about how the monster feeds or behaves, and there’s no King purist complaining about how the on-screen version of a story differs from the novel. Eleven’s focus on friendship over sexuality allows for “Firestarter” and “Explorers” to weave themselves into a story that becomes “E.T.”, rather than be shoehorned together. Stranger Things manages to press the nostalgia button while also being something new. It’s the difference between a remake and an homage, and it does so beautifully. At a time when we’re seeing three different Spider-man universes within a single decade, this look back to the 80s is bizarrely new and refreshing.

About Adam

Adam is a Jewish American who's sick of the white Christian male being America's "default" setting. For money he works in a public library because free books and information access are wonderful things. For love he writes here for his pet project, The Chaotic Neutral, which is always looking for more writers. You can follow him on Instagram, Goodreads, and at his oft neglected Twitter where he will try to post more, and probably live-tweet the Eurovision Song Contest.

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