How Stranger Things Evoked Familiar Things (E.T.! Goonies! Freddy!) While Delivering Fresh, Fun Thrills

Stranger Things were happening this past weekend for those who sampled and wound up bingeing all eight episodes of Netflix’s new drama series.

(Basic plotline/mild spoilers follow, until I announce otherwise. And I will announce otherwise.)

Created by brothers Matt and Ross Duffer (who cowrote a few episodes of Wayward Pines) and set in a small Indiana town circa 1983, Stranger Things revolves around the vanishing of a young boy, Will Byersstranger-things-villains , which comes on the heels of something escaping from a local, “secret” government lab lorded over by Dr. Martin Brenner (Matthew Modine). As Will’s mother, Joyce (Winona Ryder), endeavors to not fear the worst, his pals Mike, Dustin and Lucas tap into their expertise as D&D adventurers to launch a search — during which they stumble upon another of the lab’s secrets.

Elsewhere, police chief Jim Hopper (The Newsroom‘s David Harbour) juggles the discovery of a friend’s “suicide” with (old flame?) Joyce’s growing anxiety over Will’s fate, while the romantic travails of Mike’s big sis Nancy steer her in the direction of the stranger things suddenly going on in Hawkins.

All of the above adds up to a sticky premise for a series, but what about Stranger Things bumped the buzz to a higher level? What drew people in, perhaps for their first binge ever?

Confession: I, for one, am loathe to binge a show. In fact, I have only done it once, in the name of interviewing a House of Cards actor and facing a deadline. But Stranger Things appealed to me in a unique way. In part, it’s because we were talking about “just” eight (versus 13) episodes, which can be comfortably done in two sittings, without feeling like you committed an entire sunny weekend to sitting indoors.

But it was the series’ 1980s sensibility that spoke to me most, having been a teen in 1983 myself. God, those were good times. Fiddling with the latest Realistic gadget from Radio Shack, playing interminable games of D&D (I was a horrible dungeon master), praying you’d get an Atari for Christmas (I had to settle for the Sears knock-off). Stranger Things in a tactile manner tapped into all of that and more, delivering regular nods to movies from that time (and since), plumbing the familiar in a fresh way, the sum of its parts adding up to something immersive — not unlike a heavily salted tank of water.

Here are but a few of the memorable films that The Duffer Brothers (often purposely, as shared in interviews) paid homage to as they crafted this upside down adventure. Big, fat, bold and red spoiler alert!

The Goonies | The very premise of Mike (aka “Frogface”), Dustin/”Toothless” and Lucas (did the bullies award him a rude nickname?) embarking on this increasingly wild journey undoubtedly surfaced memories STRANGER-THINGS-BIKESof the 1985 adventure saga.

E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial | Though Eleven — who, like E.T., was bestowed with a nickname by her finders — was not an extraterrestrial per se, her story checked many of the same boxes as the 1982 Spielberg heart-tugger, from the scary men in hazmat suits out to capture her, to playing “dress up” as a disguise, to levitating household objects/friends, to using her powers at critical times — though she opts to flip the baddies’ cars instead of float over them.

Poltergeist | A desperate stranger-things-netflixJoyce struggling to carry on a dialogue across dimensional planes with a staticky, far-off Will was very akin to how the Freeling family communicated with Carol Anne through their TV back in ’82.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind | In this 1977 classic, a single mother in Indiana, desperate to retrieve her missing son, is aided by a resourceful andsimilarly invested-slash-obsessed man. Sounds like Joyce and Hopp, to us.

A Nightmare on Elm Street | For one, you had kids trying to summon an ominous entity who was able to reach out to grab you through seemingly latex walls. But also think about the Upside Down world, which with its stark, dark mirroring of humdrum Hawkins was similar to how Freddy would pull us into a topsy-turvy dreamscape.STRANGER-THINGS-ELEVEN

Carrie, Firestarter | Eleven’s initially reluctant ability to use her mad mental powers during times of stress/anger echoed her Stephen King-sired sisters.

Stand by Me | If the idea of a bunch of young boys setting out on a journey to solve a dark mystery didn’t immediately drum up memories of the 1986 Stephen King adaptation, surely their walk along a railroad track drove it home for you. Rest assured, horrormeister King himself is a fan of the series:

WarGames | Just as Matthew Broderick and Ally Sheedy worked to unravel a conspiracy born of a stealth enemy, would-be sweethearts Jonathan and Nancy teamed to get to the bottom of the mystery that had targeted his brother and her best friend. Speaking of Nancy…

The John Hughes Oeuvre | When not STRANGER-THINGS-TEENSgoing for surreal scares, Stranger Things served up teen-based angst involving Nancy and dreamy, douchey Steve — who three decades ago would surely have been played by James Spader (while Nancy herself, played by Natalia Dyer, from certain angles is a ringer for Ferris Bueller‘s Mia Sara).

The Thing, Evil Dead | In addition to any thematic nods (including a summonable evil), the seminal horror movies’ posters were among those spied on the kids’ walls.

Mad Max: Fury Road | Though Eleven’s buzzed head was not inspired by Charlize Theron’s Furiosa, the release of the action-film gave ingenue Millie Bobby Brown the nudge she (and her parents) needed to sign off on the extreme haircut, the Duffers told our sister site Variety.

Pan’s Labyrinth | Though more recent than  any of the films cited above, the Duffers worked with Guillermo del Toro’s special effects house to come up with “the demogorgon,” who especially in the early, fleeting glimpses stirred up memories of the spindly Pan’s Labyrinth faun.

Did you binge Stranger Things yet? What did you think? And what past movies did it channel for you?

Comments are monitored, so don’t go off topic, don’t frakkin’ curse and don’t bore us with how much your coworker’s sister-in-law makes per hour. Talk smart about TV!

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35 Comments
  1. sarah t says:

    I’m two episodes in and I like it for basically the same reasons you stated above. A little nostalgia, old school “scares” without the gore (or at least that I’ve seen so far) and just good suspense. I hope this is something they continue (maybe the next “Stranger Things” can be set in the 70’s or the 90’s?). And I agree that it’s easier to binge since it’s “only” 8 episodes. I’m really enjoying it so far.

    • garlick2 says:

      According to interviews, the cast isn’t changing for season 2, and it will be a “continuation” of the story. At least, that’s what I’ve read.

  2. darkangel200 says:

    I actually got Netflix just so I watch this show, because, hey, Winona Ryder. But I channeled all the movies you did, too, which just added to my enjoyment. The casting is perfect. This is the most fun I’ve had watching a show in a long time.

  3. Jennifer says:

    Given what you’ve said above Matt, I’m in. I think I’ll check this out this weekend. Especially if it’s going to be a miserable outside as they say. I need a break from my Gilmore Girls binging (again) (sorry Michael).

  4. Lyn says:

    Sounds a bit like Plague Dogs, too.

  5. Sam says:

    I don’t understand now Fringe is left off the list (although it was a show, not a movie). That show was centered around alternate realities / parallel universes AND uses the sensory deprivation tank as the chief way of travelling between universes outside of an already existing gateway. And then there’s the girl who has been used as a science experiment who has these super powers and can travel between realities with her mind. Hello Olivia Dunham?

    • irishrose4583 says:

      agreed! Definitely saw fringe parallels. I even saw some firefly parallels in that the the scientists chasing eleven reminded me of the blue hands chasing river. However i think the article was focusing on 80s movies

  6. Griffy says:

    I loved this series!! This was a movie mash-up of all of my favorite 80’s movies growing up. Took me back to when I was a kid and the Duffer bros. were spot on in their 80s immersion. Even the flaws in the series worked for it because in the 80s you could build a sensory deprivation tank in your high school gym with a kiddie pool and road salt.

    The Stephens (Spielberg and King) have received a lot of the homage attention but I would add a nod to John Carpenter for his 80’s horror movie contributions (Starman, The Fog, The Thing). There were a lot of Carpenter like elements in the story I’m sure the Duffers drew upon.

    Eight 45 minute episodes is not a big commitment and it’s definitely worth the investment. This is a must-watch for any kid of the 80’s

  7. George H. says:

    The synth music kind of reminded me of Twin Peaks too.

  8. Red Snapper says:

    To me it was very Spielberg meets King which was something I never knew I wanted. It was the best thing I’ve watched in a long time. I wanted more but thought 8 episodes was a good number. Any more and it would have lost its excellent pacing. It ended with enough resolution but definitely left the door open for more. Also, my SO who’s not that into TV and I have to search far and wide for stuff for him loved it. He was the one who wanted to watch until very late despite the tiny human that would be waking us up very early.

  9. Nate H says:

    I think its worth mentioning that no ones has said Monster Squad!!

  10. Ina Hark says:

    The bullies gave Lucas the racist nickname “Midnight.”

  11. Annie Sisk says:

    Lucas’s nickname was – horribly enough – “Midnight.”

    And my daughter and I utterly loved it. We watched all 8 episodes in 2 sessions, Friday and Saturday, and are completely on board for a season 2, should it come.

  12. ayeah14 says:

    What about the reference to IT with the sling shot being used to attack the monster.

  13. Michael says:

    Made me think of The Explorers.

  14. E says:

    I was home from work sick on Friday and me and my son binged all 8 episodes. We both LOVED it. I didn’t want it to end and we are hoping there is a season 2 to continue the story. The casting was perfect and the 80’s vibe was perfectly captured. We thought of all the movies above as well as Monster Squad. It was a great show so hopefully people give it a chance. Best thing I’ve seen in awhile

  15. Simon says:

    I liked it. The nostalgia element also meant that it was very predictable, but that is not necessarily bad in something like this. Possibly an eventual second season would branch and take a few more risks

  16. Sarah says:

    Watched it all in one day; it was that good! Every episode was vey exciting and left you wanting more. It definitely bought me back to the thrillers of the 80’s and I loved the group of kids in the movie. Now we have to wait a year for the next season;(

  17. KlrMase says:

    For someone who grew up in the 80’s this was an Awesome show. The music totally reminded me of the music in Escape from New York and maybe also a little X-Files. Also the Baseball bat with the nails hammered into it was from the Escape from New York fight scene with Kurt Russell, too. When 11 gets cleaned up in the dress and the wig totally reminded me of the Ally Sheedy scene in The Breakfast Club. Also, the childs crib mobile looked exactly like the clown from Poltergiest. Cant wait for season 2. FWIW, I thought Winona Ryder was amazing. I wonder if there were any BeetleJuice or Heathers references that I may have missed.

  18. Elle Jackson says:

    Great show! I echo all the comments made here especially growing up in the80’s. Surprisingly, my 16 year old crawled up next to me and watched all 8 episodes with me. Usually he’ll bail before an episode ends but he was so interested that he barely moved!! So awesome to watch a show that we both could enjoy. BTW, loved seeing Wynona Ryder again… So love her😉

  19. Jared says:

    This was honestly one of the best shows I’ve seen in a long time. Love Winona Ryder and the rest of the cast. Hopefully Netflix announces a S2 soon.

  20. Ihatespidersandclowns says:

    this show remind me of IT and ET

  21. Carla Costa says:

    You forgot “silent hill” in this list, the mother looking for the kid in the other world, the monster, the blue with “snowish” environment… All awesome.

  22. Gator5000E says:

    You need to add JJ Abram’s wonderful movie Super 8 to this list. It was the first show I actually thought of while watching the series.

  23. Bill Hidalgo says:

    Great story, I do not like series because they last too long. Hope they don’t make too many seasons abot this one, because that somehow spoils the quality of the Story and people start to lose interest

  24. Gail says:

    Hope this series returns

  25. KS says:

    I can’t believe Super 8 hasn’t been mentioned. It’s a great, nostalgic movie that features an awesome group of kids, and monster and conspiracy elements.

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