Nostalgic sci-fi series Stranger Things unexpectedly became the biggest Netflix hit of 2016. Set in 1983 and created by the Duffer brothers, the series focused on the disappearance of 12-year-old Will Byers (Noah Schnapp) and related supernatural occurrences in the fictional town of Hawkins, Indiana.
The show saw Will’s mother, Joyce (Winona Ryder), and his three best friends, Dustin, Lucas and Mike (Gaten Matarazzo, Caleb McLaughlin and Finn Wolfhard), try to find him, with the boys befriending mysterious, near-mute psychokinetic girl Eleven (later El, played enigmatically by Millie Bobby Brown).
The runaway success of Stranger Things made stars of its young cast and reinvigorated the careers of both Ryder and Matthew Modine, who had a fine support role as sinister scientist Martin Brenner. The show’s wide range of likeable, well-realised and interesting characters is a crucial factor: Hawkins feels like a recognisable small town, with a traumatised, alcoholic chief of police, Jim Hopper (the excellent David Harbour), older teenage bullies and straight-laced suburban parents.
Watch the Stranger Things 2 trailer
But film fans of a certain age and taste get the fuzzy warmth of memory too, as the Duffers wear their visual, narrative and sonic influences not so much on their sleeves as all over their clothing. E.T. the Extra-terrestrial (1982), The Goonies (1985) and Stand by Me (1986) were perhaps the most obvious cinematic inspirations on the plot, characters and tone of the first series. The overall influence of Stephen King’s work could also be detected, alongside hat-tips to Poltergeist (1982) and myriad John Carpenter films and scores. If kids in peril, spooky goings-on and mysterious, satisfying fun is your bag, Stranger Things is essential.
With the launch of the second series, things have stepped up a gear. Set in 1984 this time, the new season is darker, funnier and more ambitious and inventive. It also has a few key new influences.
Director Brian De Palma
If El’s telekinetic powers are delved into occasionally in the first series – a truck-flipping scene and the series finale being particularly memorable – the second sees a more thorough exploration of her powers. As with Carrie, the protagonist in cinema’s first big Stephen King adaptation, El maybe doesn’t know how strong her powers are until she is tested. She also has a troubling parental background and a difficult relationship with her mother. While their mothers are completely different, both women are hugely important in the development and ultimate use of their daughters’ psychic powers. In series two of Stranger Things, there’s room for a whole episode about El as she attempts to find her ‘sister’ and herself. Are the Duffers hinting at a potential spin-off series?
Director Ivan Reitman
When the second season press photo of the four lead boys dressed in Ghostbuster outfits appeared early in 2017, the hearts of many pop cinema fans leapt with joy. Surely everyone wants to be Pete Venkman at some stage in their life? In the actual show, there’s a gleeful moment in an early scene showing Joyce sewing a ’busters badge on Will’s uniform. Then the real fun comes during episode two, ‘Trick or Treat, Freak’. The boys dress up as the legendary parapsychologists and investigate some icky goings-on in Hawkins, with the same traps and bickering camaraderie of the original four, who appeared in cinemas just a few months before the events in the series. There’s even a rather familiar musical cue.
Directors Ridley Scott/James Cameron
Ridley Scott’s sci-fi horror classic and James Cameron’s mighty action sequel are all over series two of Stranger Things. Alien is a significant visual reference throughout the series but specifically in tense exploratory scenes in definitely-not-man-made caves beneath Hawkins. The film’s lighting and production design are referenced, while – in an echo of Alien’s first act – men in protective suits peek through the fog and beams of light, unaware of their grim fate. When the action kicks off in earnest, there is an Aliens-style militaristic approach to the gunplay and flamethrowing destruction. Even the beeping monitors and athletic attacks of the ‘demadogs’ are reminiscent of cinema’s most vicious xenomorphs. One half expects Bill Paxton to appear, moaning: “It’s game over, man, game over.”
Donnie Darko (2001)
Director Richard Kelly
Probably the biggest change between Stranger Things’ first and second season is the latter’s descent into darker territory. Sure, there was murder, maiming, kidnapping, loss and abandonment in the opening run, but the woe is altogether bigger and the stakes higher second time round. Again, poor Will is at the brunt of the strife. For the most part he is plagued by visions of The Upside Down, that terrifying apocalyptic version of the world where all is fire, storm, darkness and evil. At times we’re not sure if Will is here or there, if the eschatological angst is in his head or real. It looks and feels distinct and spectacular, albeit heavily influenced by Richard Kelly’s cult classic, which covers similar ground and also shares a wit that’s knowing, biting and full of sensual mystery.
The Cabin in the Woods (2012)
Director Drew Goddard
Drew Goddard’s mighty postmodern horror is like the film version of Stranger Things. It steals great chunks of existing genre tropes from classic films, puts a frantic and fresh new spin on them and delivers jokes, action and coolness in spades. The Duffers seem huge fans of the film in general but in episode eight of series two, ‘The Mind Flayer’, make their love explicit. To reveal too much would spoil the huge fun, but suffice it to say the extraordinary ‘purge’ sequence at the end of The Cabin in the Woods is a notable reference point. All hell breaks loose and unspeakable id creatures attack people who really shouldn’t have messed with things they couldn’t possibly understand. Superb.