3 Reasons Why I Loved Netflix Original Series “Stranger Things”

stranger things

Finished Netflix original series Stranger Things after a few hours of major binge-watching last night. Called the surprise hit of the summer, Stranger Things has been building a steady following since its release and-some have said-is on the road to cult status.

The series begins with the mysterious disappearance of Will Byers (Noah Schnapp), an average 12-year-old boy from Hawkins, Indiana. As Police Chief Hopper (David Harbour) launches an investigation, Will’s mother (Winona Ryder) and friends Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), and Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) embark on their own search and quickly discover there’s more to his disappearance than meets the eye. Filled with horrifying monsters, a girl with telekinesis, and portals to other worlds, Stranger Things is the intersection of the ordinary and supernatural. Though I could go on and on as to why Stranger Things deserves all the hype, here are a few reasons why I loved the show.

stranger things cast

1. Mystery

What are stories but mystery boxes?” director and filmmaker J.J. Abrams once posed. Abrams, the mastermind behind such puzzling television riddles as Lost, knows that good story-telling is about ambiguity; it’s what you don’t know-not what you do.

Stranger Things builds edge-of-your-seat suspense by constantly denying us access to the box. Creators the Duffer Brothers, in fact, padlock the box and throw away the key. With each episode, the enigma of Will’s disappearance deepens: where is Will? Who keeps calling Joyce, Will’s mother (played by a convincingly distraught Winona Ryder)? Who is the practically mute girl the boys stumble upon in the woods and where did she come from? Why did the state claim jurisdiction of where Will’s body was found and later bring in their own guy to perform the autopsy? Just when you think the show can’t get any more bizarre, just when you think you have a handle on the sinister happenings of this strange town, something even weirder happens to complicate your theories.

This series reminds me of one of my all time favorite movies: Donnie Darko. In terms of genre, both dabble in the paranormal and both play with the possibility of other worlds.  Like the cult classic, Stranger Things preoccupies itself with the questions-not so much the answers. So if you adore slightly offbeat shows that are one part sci-fi and two parts mystery/thriller, watch this show.

dr. brennar & hawkins lab

2. Conspiracy 

In her astute analysis of the sixth episode, AV Club critic Emily Stephens considers both the literal and figurative meanings of monster:

“El’s powers opened a portal between universes for a creature to slither through, but she’s not the monster. Even that creature, horrifying as it is, isn’t the worst monster of Stranger Things. The monster didn’t have to cross over from some darker dimension. The monster was here all along.

The monster is Brenner, persuading college kids to trade a couple of hundred bucks for the risks of his mind-bending experiments—in Terry Ives’ case, a lifetime of near-catatonia. The monster is Steve’s jealousy and entitlement, blotting out his affection for Nancy and his vacillating sense of decency. The monster is the vindictive rage of a bully, who forces a classmate to jump from the quarry’s cliff by holding his friend at knifepoint. The monster is the blank resolve of a government bureau eager to exploit a gifted child, pushing her to make solitary contact with something unknown, unknowable. As Stranger Things already hinted in the title of “Chapter Two: The Weirdo On Maple Street,” with its nod to a classic Twilight Zone episode, the monster isn’t the thing from another world. It’s us.”

When a frightening, alien-like monster wriggles through a hole between the real world and the upside down and begins tormenting Hawkins, we can’t help but think it’s the antagonist we’ve been waiting for. But as Stephens so insightfully points out, the real monster is not some creature from another world-it’s within us.

The central antagonist of Stranger Things is not a literal monster but a figurative one: Hawkins National Lab. Since the 1960s, we learn, diabolical yet socio-pathically kind scientist Dr. Brenner has been performing mind control experiments on human subjects. He kidnaps his most prized subject, a young girl named El, from her mother when it’s discovered she has telekinetic powers. Since then, Dr. Brenner has been trying to harness her abilities for the more malevolent purposes of weaponry and espionage.

In their pursuit of truth, Joyce and Captain Hopper realize Will’s disappearance is a part of this massive government cover-up. And the U.S. government is a titan adversary. The more unsettling truths they uncover, the more they realize they have nowhere to turn. Stranger Things creates a twitchy, anxiety-laden atmosphere where no one-especially those in positions of authority-can be trusted. Brenner and his team are unstoppable: dissenters who try to expose the truth are easily made to look insane…or are mercilessly killed off.

Dr. Brenner, Hawkins Lab, the U.S government- all represent the most terrible kind of monstrosity: indifference to one’s fellows. As Brenner and his colleagues ruthlessly exploit El’s powers for their own advantage, the government remorselessly covers it up.

If you love underdog stories, you’ll find it immensely satisfying when Hopper goes all renegade cop and tries to untangle Brenner’s webs of lies and cover-ups (though it’s hard to believe he’d emerge from some of his discoveries unscathed). Like all underdog tales, Stranger Things derives its tension not from the anticipation that we might encounter a real flesh and blood monster but the certainty that a less easily defeated foe lingers around every corner. 

stranger things

3. The 80s

If you’re an 80s kid like me, Stranger Things will be a nostalgic return to the ambient synth and bad hair of yesteryear. Watching this sci-fi/horror is like being teleported to 1983, a time when anti-communist paranoia was its height and we thought-for some reason- that mullets looked good. Creators the Duffer brothers do a superb job of accurately reconstructing the period, never stumbing into overblown caricature territory (you won’t see any Madonna-esqe fish nets or neon eye shadow here).

Guardian columnist Lucy Mangan fittingly coined Stranger Things a spooky shot of 80s nostalgia straight to your heart. In their 1980s tribute, the Duffer Brothers pay homage to every cinematic genius of the period from Spielberg to Steven King. The group of best friends coming of age whilst chatting over walkie talkies recalls Stand By Me (not to mention another classic period piece Now and Then) while the otherworldly girl with telekinetic powers conjures up images of ET.  All that’s missing, as Mangan notes, is the glowing finger. Ryder herself is a relic of the era, bringing to mind the pseudo-intellectual banter and dark morbid humor of such movies as The Heathers.  Add a dose of creepy spirits communicating through electronics a la The Poltergeist and you have the perfect cocktail of heart-warming coming-of-age tale and spooky, eerie sci-fi thriller.

The Descent

 

the descent

 

British horror thriller The Descent is probably one of the most original scary movies of our time. There’s no sensationalistic violence or needless gore here. Instead of rely on the obvious, cliched gags of the horror genre, The Descent plays on our most primal fears: fear of enclosed places, fear of the dark. The title may literally refer to six women’s harrowing drop into the depths of an eerie cave system, but it equally refers to their horrifying descent into unimaginable madness and terror. Below the surface, each woman finds herself in a kind of hell, an inferno where nightmares are realized and man is reduced to his most savage form.

After suffering the loss of her husband and daughter, Sarah (Shauna MacDonald) is devastated and emotionally fragile. To help her heal, her best friends Beth (Alex Reid) and Juno (Natalie Mendoza) plan a girls trip away. But this is no mimosa and bed and breakfast type trip- the girls plan on trekking through the Appalachians and exploring its hidden caves. If writer-director Neil Marshall does anything well, it’s violate our expectations. Apart from featuring an all-female cast (a move virtually unprecedented in horror flick history), Marshall chooses a bunch of bad-ass adrenaline junkie chicks as his stars. I’m not going to lie: the feminist in me was satisfied to finally see women escape their helpless damsel-in-distress roles and scale cave walls. In fact, The Descent indulges in no screaming, pitiful pleas of spare me: when cave-dwelling monsters show up 40 minutes later, Marshall’s women remained tough and determined and defend themselves.

Marshall and cinematographer Sam McCurdy do a spectacular job of creating a near unbearable sense of claustrophobia throughout the film. Though enclosed spaces aren’t scary in themselves, the idea of being trapped in a confined cave is enough to give most of us a panic attack. I myself could barely make it through some of the more excrutiating scenes when the girls were navigating through the cave’s passageways. Why? It’s not fear of the cramped quarters-it’s fear of the panic we’ll create for ourselves. In one scene when Sarah gets stuck while crawling through a tunnel, it’s her own anxiety that puts her in danger: “Sarah, just breathe!” her friend Beth tries to comfort her, “Calm down…you just have to breathe.” Much like Sarah, we produce our own fear as we imagine what might be lurking just around the corner in the dark.

What makes The Descent so downright disturbing are not the caves or monsters they encounter (though those are also pretty darn scary), but the demons they must confront while far from civilization. The setting of a cave turns out to be a genius setting for a horror movie; in Freudian psychology, a cave hints at the dark underbelly of the psyche where repressed fears reveal themselves and deviant longings lurk.

The Descent, it seems, is just as much a literal descent underground as it is a metaphorical regression to our more beastly animal nature.  Marshall’s cave setting makes it possible for the women to justify committing the most heinous acts against each other.  In one devastating scene, tough girl Juno is slaying cave monsters left and right only to accidentally kill her friend Beth.  Rather than rush to her aid or even just apologize for stabbing her, Juno looks in horror at what she’s done and leaves Beth to die there.  Sarah also becomes merciless when she takes her revenge at the film’s end and stabs Juno.  If we take the cave as symbolic of the Freudian unconscious, it makes sense that Marshall’s characters turn on each other.  In the real, civilized world, it would be unconscionable to act on our vengeful desires; in the wilderness, it’s perfectly acceptable to stab our husband-stealing friend in the foot and leave her there to be ravaged by man-eating monsters.  

In the end, The Descent is not a horror film in the traditional sense- it is an unsettling reminder of our potential for evil.  As the title itself suggests, ruthless barbarism and selfishness are a part of our heritage as a species.  Put good people in dire enough circumstances and they’ll do unthinkable things to each other.