Like the real 1980s, Stranger Things gets more unsettling as it goes. The opening episode of the Netflix show, created by the Duffer Brothers, gives us swear-y, scruffy kids playing D&D and then, beneath a lavish suburban starscape, encountering the unknown — which one of the boys promptly hides in his basement. (Later, he’ll introduce the unknown to his Star Wars action figures.)
This might come across like one-trick retro-VHS nostalgia, the miniseries equivalent of those plug-and-play Atari joysticks with 8-bit games loaded in them: Yes, it’s fun, but how long do you really want to spend recreating 1983? The Duffer Brothers, who wrote and directed the first two episodes (as well as the finale), adore the beer cans and clutter of the Close Encounters living room, the flashlights in the woods of E.T. and the sinister synths of John Carpenter films.
Movie-mad allusiveness only wins over the movie mad, of course. Happily, Stranger Things soon offers something more than Super 8–style pastiche. Its influences keep getting wider and wilder — by its finale, a series that at first seems after E.T.’s coming-of-age warmth has expanded into the realms of The Thing, Alien, The Fury and even Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin. But what’s most transporting about the series isn’t the chance it offers to go reference-spotting.
The Duffers and their writers and directors (including Shawn Levy) have crafted something singular. This is the best-ever miniseries adaptation of a great horror novel — it just happens to be adapting one that hasn’t actually been written. (Smooshed together, Dan Simmons’ Children of Night, from 1992, and Carrion Comfort, from 1989, might come close to it.) The characterization grows richer with each episode, the tics the D&D gang exhibit in the first hour flowering into traits and then, suddenly, into characters. And the variety of moods and set pieces is continually surprising, even when it suggests some familiar source. Stephen King and Steven Spielberg have often infused the everyday with the thrillingly uncanny — the magnet letters on the fridge in King’s Bag of Bones, or the futzing electricity and kiddo record-player in Close Encounters. Stranger Things works up shivery variations on this with walkie talkies, compasses, a child’s swimming pool and, most memorably, the Christmas lights Winona Ryder’s character strings up all through her home.
Through them, she endeavors to communicate with her missing son, who she believes is somehow still alive, somewhere, even after his body has turned up in a quarry. That this makes perfect, persuasive sense to us even as she destroys her living room is testament to Ryder’s performance and some smart writing. Spielberg himself seemed uncertain whether Richard Dreyfuss’ UFO-crazed remodeling in Close Encounters was comic or tragic, awful or admirable. Here, the parent’s desperation is rooted in being a parent, not intergalactic wanderlust. There’s been carping online that Ryder is overwrought in the role, trembling and teary, but she’s continually inventive in her grief, and to my eyes she seems to be fully inhabiting the role she’s playing: a mother who’s had tough times suddenly facing the toughest.
That she goes for broke, investing every breath with doubt and panic, complicates our expectations of the genre. Guess what? Supernatural forces snatching your kid away isn’t a goddam adventure. Stranger Things is more like a horror novel than the Poltergeists of the world. It demands you actually sit back and imagine what it would feel like to be these people — not just to enjoy, somewhat passively, the ways the filmmakers spook them.
Sometimes it’s messy. The young woman who crashes the boys’ D&D club, played by Millie Bobby Brown, is more a plot point than a character, especially as the mysteries of her past get cleared up. Scenes of Matthew Modine’s evil government scientist are boilerplate enlivened only by the chance to contemplate Modine himself. And those D&D boys can sink into schtick, but they’re so likable that this only grates on occasion. Gaten Matarazzo marks the welcome return of a type: the shouting, impassioned pudge, familiar from The Bad News Bears and (more gratingly) The Goonies.
By its end, after eight episodes, Stranger Things becomes darker and more frightening than its opening suggests. Turns out the genre is definitely horror, not coming-of-age E.T.–style. Its also, like a King novel, somewhat hopeful. Stranger Things spends many minutes with characters that movies don’t have time for: the mother, the local police chief (David Harbour), the hunky bully (Joe Keery), the older sister who’s almost a woman (Natalia Dyer).The casts of horror movies tend to shrink as the climax approaches, with a “final girl” or heroic dude left to face off against evil in the climax. Here, it’s all the people we’ve come to care about, some paired up in surprising ways, some revealing themselves as more than we expected. In that, they’re like the show they inhabit.