‘Stranger Things’: Netflix cranks the campy nostalgia up to 11

November 29, 2021 | (Jason Fraley)

WASHINGTON — Will a streaming show spark sci-fi horror for a new era?

Stranger things have happened. In fact, “Stranger Things” just happened.

Netflix’s eight-episode series is the latest binge-watching craze, following the creepy events of the fictional town of Hawkins, Indiana. It’s here that a single mom, Joyce Byers (Winona Ryder), searches for her 12-year-old son Will (Noah Schnapp), who has been abducted into an alternate dimension.

Joyce enlists the help of Police Chief Jim Hopper (David Harbour) and her eldest son Jonathan (Charlie Heaton), who has a crush on classmate Nancy Wheeler (Natalia Dyer). But the missing boy’s best hope is his trio of friends: the conscientious Mike (Finn Wolfhard), the bold Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) and the goofy Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), who encounter a strange girl named Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown). Where did Eleven come from? And could her special powers help find Will?

If all that sounds strange, it absolutely is. And yet, that’s precisely the point.

Creators Matt and Ross Duffer have branded themselves “The Duffer Brothers” as if to harness the thrills of the Coens, the humor of the Farrellys, the indie cred of the Duplasses and the sci-fi of the Wachowskis. The result is a campy, oddly gripping send-up of genre films of the late ’70s and ’80s.

These nostalgic memories — mixed with great characters and smart storytelling — are precisely the reasons why “Stranger Things” has caught fire. Like the ’80s creature from “The Thing,” it absorbs familiar elements from our pop genre iconography and — to quote “Spinal Tap” — turns it up to 11.

Which beloved flicks does “Stranger Things” succeed in recapturing the magic?

SPOILER ALERT: Expect some unavoidable spoilers below:

“Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (1977). The most crucial homage belongs to Steven Spielberg’s “Close Encounters,” which defined supernatural child abduction. It also paved the way for a parent to conduct bizarre rituals in the home, appearing crazy to neighbors but actually nearing the truth. Instead of Richard Dreyfuss building mashed potato mountains, we get Winona Ryder stringing Christmas lights, building to a secret government facility trying to cover it all up.

“Poltergeist” (1982). The second most important homage is another nod to Spielberg, who wrote the script for Tobe Hooper’s “Poltergeist.” Without this 1982 supernatural horror classic, there would be no kid getting sucked into an alternate dimension. Winona Ryder’s attempts to communicate with her missing son Will via flashing Christmas lights is a direct reference to Craig T. Nelson and JoBeth Williams communicating with their missing daughter Carol Anne via TV static. “They’re heeeere.”

“E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial” (1982). Keeping with the Spielberg kick, there’s no denying the obvious similarities to “E.T.” — particularly the early episodes with Eleven. Mike encounters Eleven in the woods, just like Elliott saw E.T. in the cornfield (minus the Reese’s Pieces). As he hides Eleven in his home, he shows her action figures and hides her in a closet. Parents make close calls in spotting her. Authorities in hazmat suits try to steal her. There’s even a magical bike chase in the seventh episode.

“Jaws” (1975). In a final Spielberg nod, “Stranger Things” features the “Jaws” poster on the wall and a creature that is attracted to blood (Watch out, Barb!). Most importantly, The Duffers attempt to follow Spielberg’s technique of not showing their monster until later in the movie. Less is more.

“Alien” (1979). Ridley Scott similarly kept his creature concealed in “Alien,” offering only flashes as the alien devoured members of the starship Nostromo. For my taste, “Stranger Things” shows too much of its creature in the alternate world (i.e. M. Night Shyamalan’s “Signs”). Still, the shock flashes of its Venus-flytrap mouth are similar to the alien striking during the “Alien” hunt for Jones the Cat.

“The Breakfast Club” (1985). It’s not all killer creatures and alternate dimensions. “Stranger Things” wouldn’t be the beloved show it is without some good old-fashioned teen romance. Many of the school hallway scenes are straight out of John Hughes flicks (“Breakfast Club,” “Pretty in Pink”).

“Fast Times at Ridgemont High” (1982). In addition to the in-school scenes, the extracurricular scenes recall high school party flicks like Amy Heckerling’s “Fast Times at Ridgmont High.” Teens hold parties while the parents are out of town, flirting and drinking beers by the pool. You almost expect “Somebody’s Baby” to start playing as Steve Harrington (Joe Keery) takes Nancy up to his bedroom.

“All the Right Moves” (1983) & “Risky Business” (1983). This pair of Tom Cruise movies seems to represent Steve Harrington (Joe Keery). In one scene, he actually says he looks like Tom Cruise and sings “Old Time Rock ‘n Roll” in an homage to “Risky Business.” Later, he writes “slut” in graffiti on the movie theater marquee, which shows Cruise’s “All the Rights Moves,” set in a small blue-collar town.

“The Omen” (1976). Steve Harrington’s rival in the Nancy love triangle is Will’s quiet older brother Jonathan. At first, Nancy thinks he’s a creepy peeping Tom when she catches him taking photos of her undressing by Steve’s window. But it turns out his photos have captured supernatural clues just like the photographer pursuing Damien in “The Omen” (1976). The red-tinted dark room is uncanny.

“Blue Velvet” (1986). The relationship between Jonathan and Nancy recalls Laura Dern and Kyle MacLachlan in “Blue Velvet” as they peel back the town’s mystery and plunge deeper into darkness. Hawkins becomes a new sort of Lumberton with secrets lurking beneath the perfectly-cut grass.

“A Nightmare on Elm Street” (1984). The scene where Nancy asks Jonathan to lie in bed with her — keeping the lights on — beckons Wes Craven fans to chant: “One, two, Freddy’s coming for you.”

“A Christmas Story” (1983). The bully duo that torments the young protagonists is reminiscent of Scut Farkus and Grover Dill in “A Christmas Story.” All that’s missing is the “Peter and the Wolf” tune.

“The Goonies” (1985) and “Stand By Me” (1986). Speaking of our young group of heroes, “Stranger Things” highlights their adventurous camaraderie, from riding bikes to building forts to playing Dungeons & Dragons. There’s the smart one, the caring one and the “chunky” one with a heart of gold. This is all made possible by Richard Donner’s “The Goonies” and Rob Reiner’s “Stand By Me.”

“Carrie” (1976). “Stand By Me” isn’t the only Stephen King story referenced in “Stranger Things.” Eleven’s superpowers appear to come straight from Brian DePalma’s adaptation of Stephen King’s “Carrie” (1976). In Episode 7, a local woman describes Eleven’s super powers: “Have you ever read Stephen King? Telekinesis, telepathy.” The only thing missing is Sissy Spacek burning down the prom.

Matthew Modine & Winona Ryder. The casting of famous ’80s faces can’t be coincidental. Matthew Modine broke in with “Full Metal Jacket” (1987) and “Married to the Mob” (1988), while Winona Ryder rose to fame with “Beetlejuice” (1988), “Heathers” (1988) and “Edward Scissorhands” (1990).

“Ernest Scared Stupid” (1991). While many folks remember “Ernest Saves Christmas,” it was the Halloween rendition that inspired “Stranger Things.” In “Ernest Scared Stupid,” kids keep disappearing in the small town of Briarville, Missouri, thanks to an evil troll. The freaked-out friends ultimately track the mystery to a tree where the kids are trapped. Sound familiar?

“The Empire Strikes Back” (1980). In Episode 7, Dustin makes multiple references to “Star Wars” character Lando Calrissian. You’ll find these direct dialogue allusions around the 18-minute mark as the kids use walkie talkies and again at the 20-minute mark as the kids are inside a school bus.

“The Thing” (1982). In this same episode, the schoolteacher watches John Carpenter’s 1982 horror classic. As his girlfriend covers her eyes in horror, the teacher points at the special effects and says, “You know how they did that? Melted plastic and bubble gum.” The poster also hangs on a wall.

New millennium references. While most homages come from the ’70s and ’80s, you’ll notice several newer allusions. The high-school hijinx recall “Freaks & Geeks” (1999-2000). Eleven channels her mental powers in a liquid vat like Agatha in “Minority Report” (2002). Once inside her alternate dimension, Eleven appears in a black void with water on the ground like Scarlett Johansson in “Under the Skin” (2014). Most obviously, the kids clash with a monster like J.J. Abrams’ “Super 8” (2011).

Why point out all these similarities? It’s certainly not to criticize “Stranger Things.” Rather, it’s an attempt to showcase that The Duffer Brothers are pop-culture buffs who know exactly what they’re doing, weaving beloved genre archetypes into a sci-fi horror tapestry that leaves us craving more.

As “Stranger Than Paradise” director Jim Jarmusch said of his own ’80s rise to prominence:

“Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows. Select only things … that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic. Authenticity is invaluable; originality is nonexistent. Don’t bother concealing your thievery; celebrate it if you feel like it. … Always remember what Jean-Luc Godard said: ‘It’s not where you take things from — it’s where you take them to.'”

In the case of “Stranger Things,” it has taken us through a glorious “show hole” into an alternate dimension, a crazy upside-down world that has turned television inside out. You know, binge land.

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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