Would you let junior watch Stranger Things? The Duffer brothers are clearly in favour, although they presumably don’t have any nippers (“I love the idea that we’re going to scare the shit out of some kids. It’s fun”). I only ask as I was frequently given to ponder during its eight-episode run (unlike a lot of series, just about a perfect length) that anyone of a similar age to its young protagonists (twelve years old) would likely be excluded from viewing on account of it being too intense. On the other hand, I was an easily petrified child.
Netflix presumably agrees with the not-so-old Duffers, since they gave it a G (PG) rating. Presumably this is classed as more Poltergeist than The X-Files, but then the former is a good example of such eggshells territory, garnering a 15 in the UK and a mere PG in the US. I guess the fear factor is ultimately in the eye of the discerning parent (provided they have any say in what junior watches on their iPad or equivalent device), since I perceived little difference between the frights on display here and the shock factor in, say, an Insidious instalment. Of course, what this has going for it beyond an Insidious is a really strong plot, beyond a strong premise, with a number of interweaving and equally commanding threads. Stranger Things isn’t all about the shocks, and it certainly isn’t all about the ’80s nostalgia. It isn’t altogether about The Montauk Project either, come to that, which is just a tad disappointing. It is very good, though.
The ’80s was a breeding ground for Spielberg thrills pushing the ratings boundaries, of course, with Gremlins and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom responsible for ushering in the PG-13 the year after Stranger Things is set. Although, that would be no more than a history lesson to the Duffer boys (Matt and Ross), since at a tender 32 they could barely have been born in 1983.
You won’t find a review of this show that doesn’t service the phrase “80s nostalgia”, but despite being fledglings (or maybe because), the Duffers have largely avoided the pitfalls of overt homage afflicting the likes of Super 8 and Midnight Special. Perhaps that’s because, for all that it inhabits a readily recognisable small town milieu, replete with pre-teens, older teen siblings (a key echo of the likes of The Goonies and The Lost Boys; maybe they should get a Feldman cameo in Season Two) and oblivious or fraught parents (Poltergeist, E.T.) this feels like a distinct tale wanting to be told in its own right, with characters and situations unbeholden to those mapped out by the likes of the ‘berg.
I suspect part of that is that you can see how the Duffers haven’t been restrictive with their influences. The conspiracy architecture of The X-Files feels like a bigger influence on that aspect of the story than its antecedents in ’70s paranoia movies, while the creature (not, alas, the Montauk Beast – or is it?) owes more to uncanny horrors of Silent Hill (as does its ash-suspended realm) and Guillermo Del Toro than ’80s creatures. The Upside Down instantly suggests the Further in terms of memorable monikers for parallel/alternate universes (and the here/not here contrast is like the disillusioned flipside of all that Randian escapism in Tomorrowland, with the mapping of the other in the same location, merely displaced), even though being snatched by something to an eerie elsewhere is very much the baseline of Poltergeist (and indeed, the snatchee being a defenceless child, trying to communicate with distraught parents).
When we see Eleven induced into an altered state, the depiction is informed by Under the Skin, a sound inspiration if ever there was. And, while I’m no Stephen King aficionado, I can readily see the referencing in the title font, and the intrusion of another, less than benevolent, sphere (The Mist). Albeit, he got that from Lovecraft. But aspects like the font, and the very John Carpenter synth score (too wall-to-wall in the first scene with the kids, but after that it feels entirely appropriate) are more garnish than essentials; they aren’t wagging the dog, which is essential for this to work.
No matter how many genre influences are easily spotted (John Hughes movies’ bittersweet teen romance and disappointment), the Duffers never seem content to merely trace the lines (hence the surprise that Steve, an ’80s James Spader type, should turn out to be not quite the manipulative louse his ridiculous hair, privilege and cocksure posturing would suggest). The show has its fair share of contemporary tunes, but isn’t interested in being entirely diegetic (hence the use of Moby, and Peter Gabriel’s cover of “Heroes”).
And when it does seem to be overly pointing and waving, as with pristine posters for The Evil Dead and The Thing (and a scene from the latter appears, following characters theorising about the creature’s relationship with blood; later fire extinguishers are used after torching it), it stands out for being unnecessarily showy (the Star Wars referencing less so, since it was linguistic currency for every kid at the time, although the Kenner Yoda figure and dressing up/hiding Eleven material does skirt rather close to E.T. territory, before shaking it off). The major referential conceit of Dungeons and Dragons actually feels fresh, since it wasn’t (to my recollection) a significant part of any popular picture of the period.
Perhaps that’s so because the Duffer’s particular young protagonists are singularly nerdy in a manner movies of the era didn’t explore in such painstaking painfulness. You had your science geek in Explorers, and bullied kids in Stand by Me, but the Duffers’ cast come armed with the authentic aspects of bullied, misfit kids, as opposed to polished Hollywood brats dressing down (just as the bullies themselves have a convincing air of malign intent).
The six-to-the-dozen, rattling exchanges between Finn Wolfhard (Mike Wheeler), Garen Matarazzo), Caleb McLaughlin (Lucas Sinclair) and Noah Schnapp (Will Byers) are convincingly breathless, but avoid descending into the unholy noise of The Goonies’ ensemble, and they always carry with them an air of substance closer to the emotional core of Elliot in E.T. (indeed, the relationship between Finn and Ellie, albeit between a boy and a girl, is closely transposed, with Ellie just a slightly less fragile and benign terrestrial, snapping necks and flipping cars, who, while she can make a boy fly, does it through necessity rather than the attempted to instil awe and wonder). That might be the key here, though. While Stranger Things has the heart strings tug of a Spielberg, it is less brazenly manipulative, less predicated on sentiment and more on genuine exchange. Perhaps that’s a consequence of their being more disposed to the horror genre, but there’s no doubting the series stands on its own two feet.
It’s difficult to pick out a winner from the pack of kids, except to say that Millie Brown, acting more with her eyes than intonations (her character is decidedly taciturn, and the brothers are fond are of the old psychic powers standby of “head down, eyes raised” for unleashing fury) as the escaped experiment subject Ellie/Eleven will surely have an incredible career ahead of her. Well, if she can extricate herself from genre roles (she was previously memorable as another preternatural child in Intruders, there possessed by a returning spirit).
Wolfhard already has one of the leads in It, and provides the heart of the piece, while Matarazzo is a hugely winning, goofball whirl of energy as the ivories-impaired, irrepressible Dustin. McLaughlin is a bit stiffer, although that may simply reflect the temperament of Lucas, rather than talent. The Duffers are very keyed into the mind-set of kids, who are constantly trading insults and squabbling amid their affection (Ellie is a “weirdo” to everyone but Mike for most of the show, even with her levitation skills known about; a particularly amusing sequence sees Dustin attempting to persuade her to float a toy Millennium Falcon, which insistently falls straight to the floor; a scene later, alone, Ellie is keeping it aloft with her mind). Admittedly, in the early stages some of the writing is a little rudimentary (“What is friend?”), but as a whole it’s highly accomplished, and at times (as when Mike explains that even though he’s known Lucas longer, Dustin is also his best friend, as is Will) almost profound.
The older teens are also well chosen. If the kids are delivered the Spielberg/ Dante/ King/ Carpenter plot, initially much of their elders’ narrative is consumed with rites of passage, as Mike’s old sister Nancy (Natalia Dyer) loses her virginity to Steve Harrington (Joe Keery) and finds fitting in with his cadre of cool, cruel kids none too easy. Charlie Heaton is particularly strong as Noah’s twitchy, brooding older brother, with a thing for The Clash and a De Palma-esque predilection for taking photos, not necessarily when, where, and of whom he should. If there’s only one instance of ‘80s-horror teen-despatching, it reverses the trend (perhaps consciously), in that it’s good girl Barbara (Shannon Purser) who winds up monster fodder.
Fine showings from the adults too. I’ve always been a big fan of Noonie, albeit aware that she isn’t necessarily suited to attempts at extending her range*. Here, sporting a Silkwood cut and forty-a-day Silk Cut habit (possibly Ryder’s own), she’s in very different territory to the ingénue that has formed the major part of her career. I was a little concerned during early scenes, as she seemed to be leading by excessive gesticulation, but she’s entirely convincing as devoted, desperate Joyce, Will’s mother, carrying through her own brand of Roy Neary-like, quirky obsessiveness as she attempts to communicate with her son through fairy lights (and an impressive variant Ouija-on-a-wall). Nice too, to see her later interaction with Ellie, at which point it feels like Ryder has finally moved beyond those late-80s/early-90s roles.
A pleasant change also, to have David Harbour in a sympathetic role as Chief Hopper (admittedly I’m going from his big screen, rather than other TV work), the unlikely hero role even, introduced as dishevelled and permanently hungover but allowed to unspool as a very capable (in contrast to his hilariously dim deputies) but quietly grieving detective. So much so, his devil’s pact at the final furlong comes as something of a shock. We don’t really get a chance to see the repercussions of this for him (only those for Ellie), other than his being invited back to the Department of Energy for a chat, but we hoped he would have chosen another path.
Hopper has some surprisingly can-do scenes, from breaking into the Department of Energy facility to his Conversation-esque hunt for a bug. Occasionally, the Duffers allow the editing to be overworked, though (Hopper finds the device in a light after going through the other lights and then everything else, but one would expect him to search all the lights first), most notably with his meaningful flashbacks to his own loss when searching for Will (although his recognition of the toy tiger makes for a leading point).
Then there’s Matthew Modine as Dr Brenner, the Machiavelli behind all this madness. He comes on sporting an arresting white ‘do, as if he or the Duffers have taken inspiration from the government agencies in Alex Cox’s Repo Man. There isn’t a lot of substance to his black hat, but somehow Modine fashions him into an identifiably amoral figure, led purely by the “purity” of his scientific inquiry, and willing to sacrifice whosoever along the way. His attitude to Eleven, who has learnt to call him Papa, is clearly one of awe and some degree of genuine affection (although perhaps more as a Frankenstein than a genuine parent). Other notables include Randall P Haven’s geek teacher, Catherine Dyer’s ice-cold assassin and Joe Chrest, who gets some of the funnies lines as Mike’s oblivious dad (“Oh my God. Is she Russian?” and “Karen, we have to trust them, okay? This is the government. They’re on our side”).
As directors, the Duffers’ appear entirely assured, and Shawn Levy surprisingly slots in without adverse comment in the two episodes where he calls the shots (Levy has a remake of Starman on the cards, exactly the sort of thing Stranger Things illustrates is redundant, when there are more than enough original stories to tell). Credit also to Levy’s editor Dean Zimmerman, despite my quibble above, no doubt seizing the chance to break free from a run of comedies and sink his teeth into something requiring a sharper skillset.
The background to Stranger Things has been the stuff of some contention, with a few voices claiming its name was changed from Montauk in order to distance it from accusations of pilfering in making a version of The Montauk Project (it was originally titled Montauk), although the guy behind 2014 documentary The Montauk Chronicles doesn’t seem to be saying that, if his comments on IMDB are anything to go by (providing that’s really him).
While the brothers discuss the MKUltra influence in interviews (they couldn’t really not, as it’s right there in the episodes, at perhaps its unlikeliest in providing remarkably easy-to-find evidence through surfing microfiche newspaper records), they’ve been reticent about Montauk itself, so perhaps there’s something to this (asked directly they just say “For production reasons and other reasons we ended up moving it” to Indiana, which is rather oblique). But the Montauk Project really does seem no more than a jumping off point, so I’m sceptical that there are necessarily murkier motives.
Which means there’s still as ripe reason to make a really engrossing TV/movie project based on the material (perhaps doing justice to the Philadelphia Experiment at the same time, the movie of which appears to be surprisingly close to at least one purported version of events). We have the Montauk Boys, but here as one girl (her number indicates there were others, but it’s left at that; while her appearance recalls the opening of James Cameron’s Dark Angel, fortunately nothing else about Stranger Things evokes that series), and this one seems to be a “happy” accident (her mother was pregnant when she volunteered for MKUltra experiments).
There’s the remote viewing aspect, by way of Altered States flotation tanks (we see Ellie eavesdropping on a Russian subject), but the Montauk Chair (I have to admit, I thought the La-Z-Boy scene was going to lead to flashbacks) and manifested monster of the Preston R Nichols and Peter Moon’s account becomes ostensibly, here, the inhabitant of alternate dimension. One might suggest it’s the externalisation of Ellie’s rage – “I’m sorry. The Gate. I opened it. I’m the monster” – maybe that’s for Season 2, but in demeanour at least it’s identifiably other, in the King manner.
And the rip is a more Lovecraftian realm than of the time-space variety (which is where The Mist comes in). If there’s a derivative aspect that weakens the show in retrospect, it’s this; the Montauk story is so dense and incredible, anyone hearing/reading it and then watching a faintly familiar, albeit extremely well done, but very thin riff can’t help but be a little let down (even if they explore more of the Montauk Project themes in the second season, or the sequel as the Duffers refer to it).
One wonders whether the Duffers simply decided not to pursue a fully-fledged recounting of what purportedly went on, or whether they were put off the project. Although, if the latter, such a notion didn’t stop The Philadelphia Experiment from being made. They have mentioned their story was originally much darker, and since the Montauk subjects’ training methods are said to have involved abuse, sexual, physical, and psychological, in order to create a vessel that could be reprogrammed from the ground up (for those who survived the process), they might simply have decided the material was to grim to pursue.
Or perhaps it all just seemed too fantastical, what with boys abducted by Grey aliens, Nazi influences, technology from Sirian and Orion aliens, a chair whose occupant can create a vortex to the past and future, the dangerously unstable link between the 1943 Philadelphia Experiment and the 1983 Montauk Project, and bases on Mars (Nichols and Moon assume the Alternative 3 doc to be genuine, which would certainly encourage the average reader to dismiss the wild story as too too wild, unless they consider Alternative 3 to have been simply uncannily and inadvertently accurate).
The Montauk Boys were utilised for a variety of functions, rather than the depiction in Stranger Things; in part they were simply used as “batteries” to fuel the psychic operating the Montauk Chair. As recounted in Montauk Revisited, they would act as sleepers, to go after anyone anti-government or be placed appropriately should martial law be instigated, or they would become assassins, or slave workers, or a UFO retrieval team. The most memorable episode recounts one of them (later revealed as Stewart Swerdlow) being sent to kill Christ via taking over the body Judas Iscariot, with an in-tandem aim of creating the Antichrist, as embodied Duncan Cameron, the operator of the Montauk Chair, and/or a Jesus clone (depending on whether you read the Nichols account or that of Swerdlow in Montauk: The Alien Connection).
This element links to the headiest element of the tale, that of the Montauk Beast, summoned into existence by Cameron (also one of the primary figures in the Philadelphia Experiment, by way of some fairly incredible body swapping, but then incredible is in keeping with the saga as a whole), who was inadvertently redeemed by the blood of Christ rather than further embedded as the embodiment of evil, and which effectively brought the project to an end. There’s also – very Prince of Darkness – the recounting of the boys being sent to year 6037, where they had to report on a ruined city and a gold statue of a horse.
Whether you swallow any of this – and why would you? – there’s more than sufficient, more than diverting material to pursue five seasons worth of TV show, elements of which echo the likes of X-Men’s Weapon X or the alternate realities and unscrupulous experiments of Fringe. They could then, like Caprica, go back and do a Philadelphia Experiment prequel that gets cancelled after two seasons. Perhaps it unnerves screenwriters that joes out there professing alternate paradigms are far more detailed and inventive than they could ever be (so little chance of The Corey Goode Story anytime soon).
I have to admit, as it stands, I’m not wholly convinced of the need for a Strange Things Season Two. Netflix appears to consider these things as rote, not recognising that a singular subject can be more rewarding (see also Bloodline). The groundwork for Ellie’s return is there (Hopper and the waffles), but I’m not persuaded by the Twin Peaks mirror scene with a Hidden-type alien slug expelled from Will’s insides. It felt like the most obvious (’80) twist ending, for a sequel we don’t necessarily need. Ellie could no doubt be reunited with her family, and there may be something left to tell involving Hopper’s link with the experiment (perhaps he’s had his memory wiped, although they didn’t wipe it when they caught him at the facility), and the potential to delve further into the experiments themselves (the alternate future timeline of the creature, and the purpose behind the programme – “They wanted to expand the boundaries of the mind; really hippy crap” – beyond straightforward spying).
But how much of this is essential and how much is unnecessary dessert is debatable. Much of the key with a show like Stranger Things is the holding back, and then the dramatic revelation, so unless the Duffers have a handful of surprises up their sleeves, much appears to have played itself out naturally. Certainly, the relationship between the kids, aside from the loss of Ellie, seems to have said all it needs to; it felt like the perfect measures. But who knows, maybe the Duffer’s can do it. They’ve certainly surprised everyone with Season One.
*Addendum 27/04/23: Not that she wasn’t forced to extend her range anyway, having been born male.