Netflix just keep proving, not just validity, but dominance in the media market. Is it still appropriate to call it a TV show any more if the best examples are no longer on television?
Further to their expanding catalogue of Marvel properties, part of an already popular collection of original series boxsets like House of Cards, BoJack Horseman and Orange is the New Black, introducing the horror series that follows a group of young boys in 1980’s Indiana as they search for their missing friend, instead discovering a young girl with strange powers, who plunges them into the middle of a supernatural plot.
If it all sounds a little Stephen King that’s because it is, watching Stranger Things I’m strongly reminded of Dreamcatcher, It, and The Mist, nor does the series shy away from comparisons, rather blatantly showing off inspirations like John Carpenter’s The Thing and the book Cujo in background detail. And why not? If you must copy, copy the best, and Matt and Ross Duffer definitely know how to draw inspiration while bringing something new to the table. Oh and speaking of “the table”, there’s something else that really dragged me into this show.
I was mildly tempted by Stranger Things when I spotted the trailer, which I then sadly forgot for a few months until suddenly my Facebook feed was crawling with it, and why? Every Dungeons & Dragons meme and geek humour page was on fire about how well D&D was used in the show. Now, my favourite hobby so rarely sees an accurate outing into mainstream media I had to know more.
Our team of young boys, Mike, Lucas and Dustin use the lore of the game they were playing with their friend Will before he disappeared, taking the fantasy world and its magical properties to understand the impossibilities they are confronted with. Given that the early 80’s were the depths of D&D controversy, suspicion of satanism and actual evil magic I feel as though the these kids may have suffered a little more persecution from at least a minority in their little town, but I’m really glad the show avoided the subject, instead focusing on the positives, and using the lore as inspiration, a means of explanation, and as part of the art direction.
Enough of the references, to the thing itself. Acting of the central cast is on point, and we have five young actors well on their way to long and positive careers, especially if next season picks up with them… although I’m not sure that’s the best direction for the series, I’ll come back to that. Winona Ryder is easily the biggest name in the cast and really shines as Will’s distraught mother, slowly going mad but at the same time seeing everything for what it really is. David Harbour as the disinterested police chief who starts tumbling down the rabbit hole takes us on a fascinating journey. Eleven is the central focus for a lot of the science fiction elements, apparently the subject of some Cold-War psychic-power experiments that worked a little too well, her escape and learning to be around normal people relies on a lot of physical acting.
The production is excellent, visually stunning, filled with subtleties that often require a second look. The 80’s horror theme is unapologetically ladled on, from the opening credits, the dark electronic soundtrack, to the set dressing and costumes. References to the many cinematic inspirations aren’t just limited to the props, but even some of the simplest shots call back to Spielberg and Carpenter. I can’t really say that I was drawn into the horror elements, certainly at no point did I fear for any of the characters, but as a dark sci-fi I was deeply hooked.
Now let us address the monster. Referred to as “The Demogorgon”, the creature is superbly revealed through glimpses, half-shots and the occasional body-part, leading to a far more dramatic final shot at the very end. Plenty of monster horrors have done a better job of their monster, but few can build it up to the same degree. The fear stems from the fact that the protagonists the Demogorgon faces are children who understand it through the lens of fantasy, and adults who don’t understand at all.
Stranger Things has been picked up for a second season already, and while I’m glad I find myself hoping they drop the current story and pick up somewhere new, perhaps leaning on the same themes, keeping to the same world, but leaving the classically ambiguous ending open. Plus, I’m curious to see where the Duffer Brothers can go creatively. I’m glad to see the show renewed, and it’ll tide me over nicely while I wait for Luke Cage.