When thinking back to the 80s, there are two things that we can all agree that decade got right: Horror Movies and Family Adventure Films. Both genre’s sport classics from those years that are still held as the hallmark of quality to this day. Hell, on some occasions, there were even instances when a filmmaker pulled off both in the same movie. And it’s that kind of genre blending that’s on display in Stranger Things, a new Netflix Original 8 Episode series that debuted this past Friday. In what can most easily be described as “What if John Carpenter made The Goonies?”, Stranger Things wears it’s nostalgia on it’s sleeve…..but in a good way.
Set in 1983 in a sleepy, small Indiana town, a young boy vanishes in the night on his way home from a friend’s place after an evening of playing D&D. The boy’s friends, family and local police search for him but come up empty. The story doesn’t end there as they’re dragged into a strange mystery involving government experiments and a young girl with special abilities. The girl, Eleven, knows where to find the boy but needs the help of this ragtag crew of kids and the few adults who actually believe them.
It goes without saying that the series has a very 80s feel as it does take place in the era, but the similarities don’t just end with the period aesthetic. The camera angles, the pacing, even the score is very reminiscent of the horror films of that time. The creators of the show, Ross and Matt Duffer do a good job of evoking the right feeling for the piece, including nods to their inspirations whenever they can.. The inclusion of the group of kids who’re are trying to save the day fits in well with the tone they’re going for. It’s like “Horror for Kids”. At the same time, it doesn’t rest it’s laurels on the nostalgia kick alone. Without a few key performances, the piece would fall flat. But thanks to the work of some of the actors, we get a substantial story with the heart to back up it’s sentiment.
There is one young actor above all that shines through in every scene she’s in. Millie Brown, who plays Eleven, steals almost every moment she has on screen. This is quite amazing as there is not a ton of dialogue for this character. Most of her communication and emotion is through non-verbal performing. That’s what makes the work she does here all the more compelling as her ability to capture the subtly shown in this performance is something I would expect from an actor twice her age. With a look, Millie’s able to tell the viewer everything they need to know. When she’s in pain, we’re in pain with her. And when she discovers something new, we see the joy that comes with it. Eleven is an easy character to root for as we feel for her immediately. This is felt all the more easily as her chemistry with Finn Wolfhard, Caleb McLaughlin, Gaten Matarazzo is also immediate.
Finn, Caleb and Gaten (who play Mike, Lucas and Dustin respectively) play your typical archetypes in the “crew of kids” dynamic. Mike’s the leader, Lucas is the skeptic and Dustin’s the comedy relief. They fit their roles well and come of as genuine kids, something not achieved that easily in film and t.v. As our window into this world, it’s easy to like to these kids and follow them on their adventure. As the main crew to share scenes with Eleven, they get the most interesting parts of the story, so much so that when they focus on the other characters in this ensemble show, you find yourself really excited when it goes back to them.
In the adults department, the only performance of significant note is that of David Harbour as Chief Jim Hooper, the local police Chief trying to find the missing boy. Hooper’s got demons that he tries to kill away with pills and alcohol. Ever since the death of his young daughter, his life has spiraled out and he’s really had no purpose. That is until this mystery lands on his doorstep. David Harbour does a great job of riding the fine line between the guy we feel sorry for and the jerk he could become. This is as much a redemption story for Hooper as it is an adventure to save Eleven. Harbour makes us care for a character that could’ve easily been a caricature…..which is what a couple of the other performances end up being.
There were a couple of actors that missed the mark in the series, most notably Winona Ryder as Joyce Byers, the mother of the missing boy, and Matthew Modine as Dr. Brenner, the mysterious antagonist of the piece. Winona tries really hard in this role as a mother who knows her son is still out there even though the rest of the town thinks she’s going crazy. The problem is that it looks very much like she’s trying. The desperation of her performance reads not as the plight of a mother in peril but more like someone overreaching. Modine’s Dr. Brenner is the exact opposite with no semblance of emotion in anything he does. His offering is too bland and if not for a force much more powerful than him, the series would be void of an interesting villain.
While some of the performances might be lacking, the storytelling of Stranger Things makes up for it in spades. The series has a compelling story that surprises you in all the right places….even if some of those surprises are a bit expected. It’s has the right mix of sentimentality and suspense that will hook you right to the end. If you’re a fan of 80s horror or family adventure, you will love what you see here. And if you’re unfamiliar with the films of that era, there’s still a great tale being told here. All 8 episodes of Stranger Things are now available for streaming on Netflix and Netflix Canada.
If you’re gonna geek out, GEEK HARD!