Tuesday, August 23, 2016

The Brilliant Hack Work of "Stranger Things"

The one-sheet by Kyle Lambert.  I would
call this composition form "Drew Struzan
Baroque:" The color fields, grouping
and eye-lines are nearly identical to
any number of his 1980's posters.
Watched all 8 episodes of this Netflix series in short order: it’s slow and convention-bound in the first few episodes, but it soon stretches out into a satisfying-- if strangely derivative-- science fiction/horror series.

In 1983 Indiana, a young boy suddenly vanishes after a game of D and D with his friends. This sparks several searches and investigations by the missing boy’s friends, family and local authorities, which soon start turning up something unsettling, malevolent and supernatural lurking in the woods outside town. At the same time a strange girl appears, an escapee from a secret government site, embodied with telekinetic powers-- who may prove to be the key to finding the missing boy.

Millie Bobby Brown as "Eleven." Apparently
that buzz cut was not all that easy to achieve.
The direction in these eight episodes is remarkable. The visual style is striking, the art direction is thorough and the individual shots are extremely well-composed (in 1.85:1 Spherical Widescreen, the most popular aspect ratio in the 1980s). The central cast are young teenagers, and every one of them offers realistic, emotive performances— in particular Millie Bobby Brown, who plays the mysterious Eleven. Strong performances by children is an indication of a strong director— or, in the cases of some episodes, directors (the show's creators, the Duffer Brothers).

The Duffer Brothers with Winona Rider on the
set of "Stranger Things." Or is this an homage
to Dead Ringers (1988)?

As stated in the title "Stranger Things" is, nonetheless, “hack work of the highest order.*” A little Poltergeist and E.T. here, a little Evil Dead and Firestarter there, litter the sets with vintage movie posters, and it's a solid tribute to the era. If you were able to subtract these period elements, I doubt there would be enough to fill a single hour-long episode. The title sequence is a well-imitated optical-effect-looking shot, complete with negative specks and vintage fonts (Korinna and Avant Garde). As solid and satisfying as the main plot threads are, there are also weak subplots about bullies and ex-husbands and past loss. Still,  "Stranger Things" is very much worth a good binge-- If anything, it’s fun to watch the show and pick up the 80’s references as they come, flashing like bulbs on a string of Christmas lights.

A few notes:

Castroville in da house!
Acknowledgement of a classic era: “Stranger Things” is set in 1983-- and going past the period setting,it just strip-mines the cinema and popular culture of this era. This was a good choice, as it was a remarkably fecund time for original science fiction, horror and fantasy. Bladerunner, E.T., Mad Max 2, Excalibur, Dragonslayer, Heavy Metal, Conan the Barbarian, The Dead Zone, John Carpenter’s The Thing, The Shining, Poltergeist, The Evil Dead and especially Firestarter were all released around this show’s setting. “Stranger Things” is a pastiche of many of these works, perhaps underscored with a narrative form borrowed from Stephen King. So this isn’t an mere exercise in period visual authenticity: it is also a reworking of genres, kept inside the generic rules of the era. It’s less like, say, “The Americans” or “Fargo,” which are set in past eras, and more like The Artist (2011), which reproduced the narrative and social trappings of the silent era in a silent film.

Cinematic New Mexico: this was the name of a TV and movie trope where cell phones are useless. In the days before wireless become omnipresent horror stories were often set in rural areas, so the instant communication afforded by cell technology was eliminated, which increased the isolation of the characters and intensified the drama. ("New Mexico" was, for a time, a mythical movie region where cell phones didn't work.) 1983 was definitely the pre-cellphone era. This allows places like a regular rural house to be completely cut off and vulnerable to attack from inter-dimensional monsters. The filmmakers even hang a lantern on this by having a regular land-line phone fry into uselessness not once, but twice. This was obviously not the entire reason to set “Stranger Things” in the pre-cellphone past, but it sure didn’t hurt.

Local Angle: Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), a friend of the missing boy,  wears a “Castroville Artichoke Festival” t-shirt for several episodes. It’s totally unmotivated— He lives in Hawkins, Indiana: Castroville is in Central California, south of Santa Cruz. I do appreciate the shout-out.

* h/t to Jared N. Wright, who coined this one-line summary. Once he wrote it, I couldn’t get past it, so I just included it.


  1. Good posting, thanks. I appreciated the classic sci fi character formula in Stranger Things - The 'scientist' who pops up, moving the plot along by explaining some semi-plausible phenomena is a classic and well used device; the practical sheriff, slow to come around to whats happening, the hero and love interest. I saw clear formulaic references drawn from the War of the Worlds, the Day the Earth Stood Still, the Thing, the Blob, etc. All in all I really liked liked this show.

  2. Which "The Blob" did you like more, the 1958 original with Steve McQueen or the 1988 remake with Kevin Dillon? Just curious.