Sunday, 14 August 2016

Stranger Things

Matt & Ross Duffer, 2016, USA TV

When I first saw Franck Khaulfon’s remake of ‘Maniac’, there was a delirious thrill as soon as the synth score by Rob kicked in: this was a new thing, to hark back to the 80s synthesiser soundtracks with such flare. But everyone seemed to be taking their cue from Nicolas Winding Refn’s ‘Drive’ and it soon became a trend, doing the retro-thing, to great effect in ‘It Follows’ and more self-congratulatory with ‘The Guest’. But what seemed to be happening was that, given license by contemporary culture’s constant cashing-in on what was popular and homaging it to death, was that the new wave of horror-makers that grew up on and were influenced by eighties genre fare were regurgitating their influences. And signposting it.

So in that sense the Duffer Brothers’ Netflix TV series ‘Stranger Things’ seems a logical culmination of this trend, a total product of the times with its foundation as a homage being its whole appeal. It’s not just set in a certain period in time, like for instance the wonderful ‘Freaks and Geeks’ or the pleasant ‘Red Oaks’, but the references to Eighties’ horror genre is paramount. Never has it been so hard-pushed that the nostalgia is the lure – even from  the title’s font. Stephen King and Stephen Spielberg are obvious influences, but Joe Dante’s doesn’t seem to be quoted in reviews as much as he ought to be; and then there are references to ‘Alien’, ‘Nightmare on Elm Street’ and a wealth of others. As Scott Tobias notes: “Stranger Things exists in the same world as the movies to which it pays homage.” (The Vulture is a good place for pointing out the references.)

But additionally and most importantly, the Duffer brothers get the emotional tone of the genre right and manage not to let all this post-moderness and reminiscence get in the way of the story. In this way, it becomes its own thing too and not just merely a litany of references. The premise is simple: a boy goes missing mysteriously and at the same time his friends find an odd uncommunicative girl in the woods when searching for him. An unremarkable suburb subsequently becomes involved with government conspiracies and attacks from another dimension. But don’t worry: people of a certain age can wallow in recognising the Eighties details, can obsess over the music (and how no American kid would yet know of The Smiths; or how certain songs used came out after the date the story is ostensibly set, and whether this matters if the song is non-diegetic, etc.) as fans can count the movie references.

But modern TV is surely an influence too, for we expect a higher quality of writing, acting and characterisation now than ever before and the show delivers. There are a few thinly drawn bullies on the side but mostly the characters make their way to fuller personalities.  It’s in the way Mike (Finn Wolfhard) gives way to his temper at times; it’s in the way that Jim Hopper (David Harbour) is introduced as the standard washed-up policeman but proves anything but; it’s in how Steve (Joe Keery) is your standard pushy and horny jerk but sees quickly that Nancy (Natalia Dyer) brings out the best in him (and the final shot of him wearing a cheesy Christmas jumper must be one of the show’s best jokes). It’s how the show gets on with characters believing in what’s happening and not dwelling on denial: there is great satisfaction to seeing different character factions realising the truth of it all independently. 

Millie Bobby Brown as Eleven is exceptional, emoting a whole spectrum despite having the least dialogue, stealing the show with silences and pained looks. David Hopper is winningly gruff and practical, his resigned and accepting look when he realises Well, I’ll have to punch my way out of this one a small highlight. Winona Ryder starts at hysterical as a mother who has just lost her son, crying into Christmas lights and making holes in walls (yes, ‘The Shining’), but her performance settles in with the context of increasingly being believed. And Gaten Matarazzo has proven a fan favourite as Dustin, the voice of mediation between his friends as well as being smart and goofy in his own right. Even the doomed Barb (Shannon Purser) has generated her own fandom. 

Yes, it’s mostly predictable but there’s a steady pace to keep it all going and it leaves enough unanswered to remain intriguing. It’s biggest misstep is when Nancy climbs into a organic hole in a tree which is obviously a portal to another world – as you would – and there is trouble with the end where the boys’ grief at losing Eleven is apparently all but forgotten when they have Will (Noah Schnapp) back; but in the latter example surely it would take half an episode to untangle and pace everything just right. For the most part, it manages to be scary and on the right side of its tropes.

Chuck Bowen thinks it all contrived, which it is, but doesn’t quite incorporate how enjoyable the ruse is as well, so it’s not quite “pointless”. It’s immensely likeable and therein lies it well-deserved appeal and achievement. This, then, is good fanboy product, nodding to the tropes just enough without getting so caught up that it’s forgotten that the thing needs its own identity too, despite following the beats closely so that nothing truly surprises, but it does go some way to answering What if the characters in John Hughes film were, you know, realistic? And there is plenty of pleasing kids cycling around for adventure, which will likely please fans of ‘E.T.: the extra terrestrial’.* A film peer like ‘Goosebumps’ is mostly successful at capturing this teen-horror spirit where, although you know it’ll all be okay in the end, there is still room for the dark stuff. 

'Stranger Things' is too busy harking back to be seminal in any way, but it is fun.
·         *          As a kid, ‘E.T.’ didn’t do anything for me – no I didn’t cry and I didn’t really like the alien. These days, I’m prone to think that I’ll appreciate the domestic stuff, should I watch it again, but even as a kid I thought Spielberg’s sentimental side a turn-off.

No comments: