From its very opening, Stranger Things, Netflix’s new, original eight-part series, is less strange than it is familiar. Written and directed by brothers Matt and Ross Duffer, and set in 1983 in small town Indiana, it’s an affectionate and immediately recognisable tribute to Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment films, with a bit of Stephen King and John Carpenter thrown in for good measure.
Much of our shared cinematic history from the American suburbia of yesteryear is referenced here. There are sinister and supernatural occurrences, oblivious parents, school bullies, teenage trysts in school toilets, a police chief with his own tragic history, who starts the day with beer and cigarettes and continues it with coffee and pill-popping, all coming together with a synth soundtrack and a set design that nails the atmosphere of the time.
Opening with some – yes – strange goings-on at the Hawkins National Laboratory, a US department of Energy, we cut quickly to the sprinkler system outside one of those low-slung houses set at regular intervals, which populate the tableaux we’re intimate with through Spielberg’s mythology. This is Hawkins, Indiana, where, in a family basement, a group of four boys are razzing on each other, while indulging in a Hobbit role-play board game and freaking each other out with some ghost stories.
As the boys take leave of each other, they ride out into the night streets on their bicycles (a touch of the Goonies and Stand by Me springs to mind) and sensitive Will (Noah Schnapp), passing the laboratory, runs into something scary. Discarding his bike, he flees to his house, and we’re in Close Encounters of the Third Kind territory, as freaky power surges light up the night sky. Mysterious, frightening shapes emerge from walls, as an allusion to Poltergeist is thrown in for good measure.
Hawkins is a small town where everyone knows each other, and major crime consists of stolen garden gnomes. It’s a place where the police chief, Hoop (David Harbour), says the worst thing that ever happened was “when an owl attacked Eleanor Gillespie’s head because he thought that her hair was a nest”. So when Will disappears, the residents of this close-knit community come together, and the search parties are out in force to support his nervous, frazzled single mother, Joyce (Winona Ryder), and her older son, Jonathan (Charlie Heaton).
Meanwhile, an enigmatic and inscrutable young girl, known only as ‘Eleven’ (Millie Brown), appears, and is taken in by Will’s friends – Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) and Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin). Hair shorn off and in a hospital gown, the boys hide her in a makeshift den in the basement, under blankets, or in the wardrobe. Speaking monosyllabically and communicating with finger gestures, she herself is presented as a kind of extra-terrestrial, on the run from sinister scientists, led by Matthew Modine. They try to track her down wearing the white anti-radioactive suits and masks familiar to us as the garb of the scientists who quarantined and experimented on that more famous ET.
Building reference upon reference, the plot and mise-en-scene merge to evoke the films of the past. The wall-mounted, ring-dial telephones, beige La-Z-Boy recliners, bungalows with plywood-panelled walls, massive walkie talkies, and out-houses where secrets are hidden are all fondly recreated. The kid actors, especially, are fantastic, naturalistic and authentic in a way that was normal in the 1980s, less so now. They even physically resemble some of the favourites – the ghost of the young Corey Feldman is here, along with a smooth-faced Will Wheaton. Mike’s sister, Nancy, brings to mind Andy of The Goonies, and his younger sister is a sweet blonde toddler with a good line in wide-eyed reaction shots – though younger than Drew Barrymore was in 1983.
The opening episodes of Stranger Things are very promising, as kids’ adventures mix with teenage hi-jinks and the older generations’ more mature worries, meaning there’s something for everyone. Whether the plot, from the disappearance of Will to the mystery surrounding Eleven, can hold together remains to be seen, but the acting takes things to a level where it’s not just pastiche, and you find yourself caring about the characters. Contrivances that would otherwise be cliches feel like fond homages, and the result is something both new and deeply ingrained, like a televisual deja vu.
All episodes of Stranger Things are available exclusively on Netflix, as part of a £8.99 monthly subscription.