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Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Static Thoughts - '80s Influences on Stranger Things

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Edited by Robert Beach 

The show of the summer has finally arrived. Surprisingly, it was a sleeper hit from Netflix that no one had ever heard of called Stranger Things.  Pretty much coming out of nowhere, Stranger Things won over audiences with its winning combination of small town stories, kid adventure tropes, horror-inflected sci-fi, and a smooth, creamy layer of ‘80s nostalgia so thick you could cut it with a spork.  

That last bit is what brings us here today as I maintain one of the best things about Stranger Things is being able to pick out the deliberate homages to 1980s pop culture and touchstones. Some of this comes in the form of direct shoutouts and references while others formed through a repackaged version of classic scenes from various movies of the time.  With that said, let’s look at the top 10 1980s influences on Stranger Things (and one ‘90s influence, but we’ll get to that in due course.) Needless to say, spoilers to follow. 

A lot of critics have picked up on Stranger Things’ serious Spielberg vibe, and this is the first film that came to my mind while watching the movie. If you haven’t seen it, Spielberg’s ode to flying saucers is one of his more glossed-over works now in comparison to Jaws or Indiana Jones. Without an iconic whip or shark, the film still holds up fairly well. The biggest influence from this film on Stranger Things comes in the form of Winona Ryder’s home renovation-based freakout at the midpoint of the show.  

The scenes of Ryder covering her home in Christmas lights so that her son can speak to her from the electric dimensions are much in the same vein as Richard Dreyfuss losing his mind in Close Encounters. He builds a scale model of Wyoming’s Devil’s Mountain in the middle of his living room.  

That’s (basically) the only scene anyone remembers from Close Encounters of the Third Kind, so it makes sense it’d show up in Stranger Things’ hit list of famous ‘80s culture. Incidentally, I’m aware that Close Encounters of the Third Kind came out in the ‘70s. This is an ‘80s movie through and through, much the same way Star Wars is an ‘80s movie even though it came out in 1977. 

Another Spielberg flick and easily the most recognizable reference in Stranger Things.  This is the film that has the most overt shot outs and scene recreations, most especially in the chase scene from Stranger Things penultimate episode.  The scene is like a cover version of E.T. only rewritten to be in a minor key, with the government operatives chasing the kids on their bike looking to kill them and the super powered sci-fi character being fully willing to brutally murder the government guys if it came to that.  

There are also a lot of other minor details that allude to E.T. Scenes of the kids distracting the parents while Eleven moves in the background and emphasis on the kid trapped in the parallel reality trying to phone home come to mind. E.T. is the primordial “kid adventure” flick from which all others emerge. All of the kid scenes relate back to it in some way, though there are a few other similar films that are close.

This one is actually from the year Stranger Things is set in and is a little more understated than E.T., but it’s still very much there. The main places this shows up are in a handful of key, evocative scenes and their framing.  

That’s part of the interesting nature of Stranger Things: the way it frankensteins together its form out of the most iconic components of all these 1980s touchstones to create something that seems like its always existed since the dawn of time. In the case of Stand By Me, the first scene with a pretty clear reference point is when the group of kids have saddled up to go find the gate to the upside down dimension, and we see them following along an abandoned rail track.  

The shot looks exactly like something out of Stand By Me. It’s not like the railway has anything to do with the plot or geography; it’s there specifically to make the reference.  Later on, when the kids have an altercation with a pair of literally murderous bullies, that’s pretty well cut from the Stand By Me playbook as well. Although, it’s more of a Stephen King cliché as he tends to favor one-dimensional bullies that view murder as the only option.

This one is a much more mercurial reference point for Stranger Things, yet the show still has Monster Squad’s fingerprints all over it.  If you’ve never seen Monster Squad, it’s a pretty basic Goonies riff with a group of kids who are all big movie monster nerds needing to fight an invasion of Universal Horror Monsters. The main influence this has on Stranger Things is the vision of the kid group, specifically the way Stranger Things pitches their group of kid heroes.  

Stuff like their D&D obsession, their interest in monster movies and horror flicks, or the overall nerdy conception of the crew are all directly inspired from Monster Squad’s playbook. Like I said, this is a more subtle element as it draws from the vast and nebulous ‘80s subgenre of “kids adventure” movies. I’d definitely point to Monster Squad as the core aesthetic identity Stranger Things is drawing from.

Like Close Encounters, this technically isn’t an ’80s movie, but it’s hard to think of a better combination of Stephen King’s horror aesthetics, small town aesthetics, and kid adventure aesthetics than IT. This is another great example of the group of kids Stranger Things tries to put together while the “monster haunting the town” set-up feels pretty damn similar to IT as well.  

The biggest thing that reminds me of the seminal clown horror film comes in Stranger Things' climax where the children try to kill the hideous faceless monster from the dark dimension with a slingshot. If you don’t know, that’s a direct reference to IT; the kids in IT also work to take down the monster with a slingshot (the IT kids have a lot more luck than the Stranger Things kids.) The other big connection between the two is that they’re both about a group of boys with one psychic girl friend, a common Stephen King cliché that pops up even more in the next entry.

I feel like Fire Starter tends to get forgotten in the collection of good Stephen King adaptations, but I’ve still got a soft spot for it and so does everyone else if Stranger Things success means anything.  This is the movie that debuted the trope of the deadly psychic little girl. While Stranger Things includes elements of King’s Carrie and The Shining, Fire Starter’s set-up is the most similar.  

The telekinetic little girl set-up is a clear reference point, for the presence of malicious government forces looking to use her powers for dark purposes is another direct point of correlation. Granted, there’s not as much pyro-kinesis in Stranger Things, but give it time. That’s what season 2 is for. 

This is another ‘80s movie like Fire Starter that we all kind of banished from memory save for one key element, basically making it the perfect reference fodder for Stranger Things.  In the movie, William Hurt plays a scientist who finds that he can use a sensory deprivation chamber to send himself on existential journey of self through the evolution of man.  It’s more or less the film that introduced the sensory deprivation tank to pop culture at large, much the same way the psychic little girl trope started with Fire Starter.  

Given Stranger Things heavy emphasis on sensory deprivation being the gateway for Eleven between our world and the nightmare reality, I’m pretty sure there’s a connection to be made here. At the very least, the idea of using a sensory deprivation tank for any mutation or dimensional travel goes back to Altered States even if it wasn’t a conscious choice. 

Here’s one that actually got a direct shout out in Stranger Things, specifically during a flashback in which Winona Ryder’s character reveals she has tickets to the Spielberg/Tobe Hooper joint film. The biggest reference point drawn from Poltergeist is the idea of a child being trapped in an alternate dimension that’s marked by freaky stuff with light. 

This idea actually goes back to the original Twilight Zone episode ‘Little Girl Lost,’ but stuff like the terrifying lights or bringing in a psychic to deal with the alternate dimension are ideas Poltergeist added to the concept. I stand by it as the reference point.  I mean, the visual of Christmas lights as a conduit for otherworldly activity has become iconic for Stranger Things in much the same manner the TV was for Poltergeist.  That, and the excessive amount of background references (Star Wars toys, horror movie posters, etc.) is very similar to Poltergeist’s style of set design.  

Here’s another ‘80s horror film that worked around the idea of alternate realities. I had initially considered adding Phantasm to this list as it’s the progenitor of parallel realities in large-scale horror. Ultimately, Nightmare on Elm Street’s dream world is far more in line with Stranger Things’ dark dimension than the strange parallel Earth of Phantasm. Specifically, Nightmare on Elm Street did a lot to create creepy and haunting dark versions of reality. Freddy’s boiler room or freaky versions of Nancy’s house from the later films come to mind. 

Speaking of, I doubt it’s a coincidence the teen girl hero of Stranger Things is also named Nancy. What’s more, Stranger Things Nancy also tries to defeat her monster with an elaborate series of booby traps that concludes in setting it on fire, just like Nancy in Nightmare on Elm Street. 


Honestly, I’m a little surprised this comparison hasn’t come up more often because there is a huge Aliens impact on Stranger Things.  Firstly, the monster design and creature creations of the dark dimensions are thoroughly reminiscent of the xenomorphs. The big monster is a humanoid creature with no face and all mouth that kidnaps people to drop them in freaky cocoons where they’re pumped full of oozing slimy stuff. That’s entirely Aliens.

Even more than that, the emphasis on Winona Ryder as a heroic mother desperately trying to rescue her child is totally on point with Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley (coincidentally enough, Ryder also starred alongside Weaver in Alien Resurrection.) Scenes like Ryder going into the dark world to try and find her son play as almost direct echoes of Ripley’s descent into the xenomorph hive in Aliens. It’s a great example of Stranger Things working to adapt character from its ’80s influences rather than just plot points and iconography.    

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