There have been a lot of reviews of this sleeper hit, but it’s clear to me that Stranger Things, at its heart, is a Postmodern Gothic Vampire story. No, not like True Blood or Twilight where the Vampires are sexy; Stranger Things goes back to the roots of Vampyre … back to Nosferatu as an unthinking monster beast of the shadows. Gentle reader, you can disagree with me at the end, but I ask you to have an open mind for now. I know what you’re thinking: But Case, there are no stakes or silver. My response borrows from a real chat John Landis had with his son Max:
John: How do you kill a vampire?
Max: Stakes? Silver?
John: Wrong! Anyway you like because vampires don’t exist!
Here we go and enjoy the reviews!
We open at the creepy castle… I mean government facility in the woods of rural Indiana where something has been awoken. The camera takes us down into the crypt or basement of the facility and a very nerdy man is running for his very nerdy life. We know the monster is nearby because the lights are flickering similar to the yellow-barrels in Jaws to let the audience know the shark was nearby, the flickering lights in Strange Things indicate that our monster is near. The scientist believes he has made it, but as he makes it to the elevator and promised safety, he hears the sounds of bat-like sonar, looks up, and is pulled up head first by the unseen monster into the abyss.
The story moves to the child-protagonists. The kids are Mike (the leader/dungeon master), Dustin (the brainy/geekiest of the group who looks uncannily like a young Judah Friedlander of 30 Rock), Lucas (the rational member of the group), and Will (who barely speaks for the entire series). They are playing Dungeons and Dragons in a basement. Yes, if you didn’t guess it yet, these boys are bullied … a lot. The game goes to crap because of a poor dice roll, bringing us to Karen (Cara Buono) who tells the boys that it’s time to call it. BTW, Cara Buono, if one of my buddies had a Cara Buono as a mom, I would’ve come up with every excuse to help out with chores for her… just sayin. There is a hilarious moment when Mike declares that he has prepared the D&D game for two weeks and his Mom’s eyes open amazingly wide as if to say: My Son- The Forever Virgin. The lights flicker and the t.v. is wonky, indicating the approaching monster.
The boys start heading home, but not before we get to meet the uber driven and ambitious Nancy (Nightmare on Elm Street nod) who wants nothing to do with her brother or his dork friends. Nancy’s relationship with Steve is one of the only boring subplots, but I will cover it briefly for completeness: She dates a rich douchebag named Steve who looks like Young Jean-Ralphio of Parks and Rec. Ok, that’s it.
Will Byers is biking home with his friends and breaks off to go his dumpy part of town. It’s true that this biking around is somewhat reminiscent of E.T., but not really. I am of this generation and every suburban boy had a bike and no helmets either. In fact, our playgrounds were all built on top of cement and asphalt. I guess it’s like E.T. in that boys are on bikes, but they also are breathing and wearing clothes. It is a testament to the art department that this piece is causing people to relive the 80s so well, superimposing every movie they see onto it. Will is getting home until he sees the silhouette of THE MONSTER. Will dumps his bike and runs to an empty home. The home is in stark contrast to Mike’s home; Will’s home is all wood paneling, old carpet, and dingy. Will sees the monster approach and runs to a wood shed in the backyard. Sadly, Will gets a rifle ready for a Vampyre fight. The lights go nuts, we hear bat-sonar, and Will vanishes into God knows where.
The opening credits are truly a marvel of 80s nostalgia, but also a nod to vampirism. The colors used are Black, White, and Red. Black is the color of Nosferatu’s cloak, White is the color of Nosferatu’s fangs and skin, Red is the color of the blood Nosferatu seeks, and the opening theme music is a heartbeat.
The next scene introduces us to my very favorite character- Chief Jim Hopper (David Harbour). He has the greatest story arc and his grief is teased out through entire series. Side note: David Harbour is without a doubt one of the greatest actors I have seen in 10 years. Hop is obviously hungover and even smokes and drinks during his teeth brushing. This man is the picture of deep deep grief. Another note for 80s accuracy, Hop’s size was very common of the early 80s cops; I had never seen a small policeman until the 90s. Cops in the early 80s were still big, could and would fight, and avuncular. Hop is the accurate epitome of this era.
The story moves back to Will’s mom – Joyce (Winona Ryder), who like Cara Buono, must have a very mysterious portrait in her attic (double points if you get the reference). Joyce is a poor working single-mom of two boys Will and the older brother named Creeper … I mean Jonathan. After a briefly upbraiding Jonathan for working instead of being home for Will, Joyce realizes that her son is gone. She calls Karen who has no idea where Will is. There is also a good showing not telling moment in this scene to really hammer home the wealth disparity between Joyce and Karen. Joyce is calling from already obsolete rotary phone, but Karen is speaking into a touchtone phone with the numbers in the cradle.
We are now at the school where …. brace yourselves… our three D&D obsessed child-protagonists are routinely bullied. Nancy and her nerdy friend Barb are going on about Steve (AKA Young Jean-Ralphio). Nancy gets a note in her locker to meet Steve in the bathrooms- that’s what I call ROMANCE. Maybe, the arousal is from the urinal cakes or the potential of someone no longer being able to wait for them to leave and just starts furiously pooping, but they do make out quite a bit and arrange to have a study makeout session later. Steve declares that he can be like a Ninja and get into her house without rousing her parents. I give it to Steve on this one; I always thought ladies dug the poetry and seeing a rom-com; NOPE – it’s all about being around toilets and ninjaing to attend a makeout session.
Hop arrives at the Sheriff’s office and plays his character as still about 1/8th drunk. Before he goes to his office, he rearranges his Deputy’s playing cards, revealing his incisive mind. Joyce is waiting for him in his office, insisting that her son is missing. He wonders if the father took him. She convinces him to look, beginning his quest. Again, this is another great nod to gothic horror, where the hero is usually flawed in someway and goes on the heroic quest for redemptive purposes.
We return to the Castl… I mean Government Facility where we meet Dr. Vanhels…I mean Dr. Brenner (Evil Modine) who, with a number of armed men wearing space suits enter the basement. There’s snow and a general ethereal atmosphere as they approach the portal to the Monster’s Home. This scene leads directly to us meeting our main protagonist- Eleven 0r El.
There are bare feet walking in the cold November Indiana woods. We focus on Eleven or El. She is a shaved-headed girl who is partly Stephen King’s Carrie and Part-Mute. She tries to steal food from a diner and is stopped by the large diner owner with a heart of gold.
We return to the school where we meet our child-protagonist’s friend – Mr. Clarke the science teacher. He takes them to their new equipment. Yep, they are the founders and administrators of the AV Club. I’m not writing that anyone deserves bullying, but come on, at least try ultimate frisbee or something. Dungeons and Dragons AND the AV Club?! WORD?! Clearly, ladies aren’t into that; they want to be making out in bathrooms with guys who Ninja around their homes! Hop questions the boys and gets a line on where he might be.
El is eating at the Diner with the Burly Owner. He feeds her and calls CPS to help out, poor guy. Then, we see El use her mojo telekinesis to stop a fan from moving.
The boy’s information has led Hop to Will’s bike. When Hop gets to the abandoned bike, he knows that something terrible has happened. Correctly, he says, “these bikes are like Cadillacs to these kids”. Hop takes the bike to Joyce and his entire demeanor changes from grief-stricken drunk to determined hero. BRILLIANT! He searches the home, the outside, and goes to the backyard shed and sees signs of a struggle and a great scare moment. He is certain at this point that Will is missing.
A search party develops and we learn that Hop’s daughter passed. BAM! Every parent watching this show understands Hop and feels a pain in their chest for him. The boys decide that they will search for Will. As Mike leaves to help, he sees Steve (AKA Young Jean-Ralphio) awkwardly ninjaing into his sister’s room. I watched this scene twice and Steve did some piss poor ninjaing if you ask me!
Burly diner owner answers the door for the Evil CPS Lady and is gunned down for his trouble. El is stopped by two armed government goons whom she easily dispatches with her Killer Mind Mojo. El’s Mojo- it’s not just good for turning off fans and messing with electronics- IT CAN KILL!!! She escapes into the rain where she runs into our child-protagonists.
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