With the second series of Stranger Things ready to launch on Netflix, it’s time for a peep into the first series again and see how this early 80s knockoff became a cult hit – and gave Winona Ryder a new lease of life.
Some would say too much life.
The star of Heathers, Edward Scissorhands and Reality Bites is so wound up in this eight-part series – as a mother looking for her missing son (and who wouldn’t be?) – that she nearly derails the whole enterprise, screaming and shouting, wild-eyed and wonderful, traumatised and demonic. A throw momma from the train clone. A girl interrupted. Beetlejuice in a strawberry field.
But this is perhaps the reason, Stranger Things works in a curious sort of way. It’s a highly-strung sci-fi which, right from the cracking opening titles, bursts into a faded, elegant charm as we enter a world of elusive characters, bickering kids, unreliable adults and an extraorinarily goonish Matthew Modine.
It’s as if the creators – the Duffer Brothers – decided they were just going to pedal hard and fast narrative’s neon lights and let the characterisation chips fall where they may.
And they succeeded – because engagement is the first and only requirement for drama. The rest is hot air. A further, canny decision, to concentrate – in the main – on the kids’ lives, loves and hang-ups, rather than the adults, gives it an other-wordly, unsettling innocence that it otherwise may not have had.
But one thing it isn’t is strange. Unsettling, yes, but not strange. It’s actually a highly conventional early 80s tribute piece, with nods to the likes of Poltergiest, ET, video nasties and other assorted goodies from that delightly dark period, and this gives it the ‘sense’ that it’s unusual, different and groundbreaking.
It isn’t. But that doesn’t mean it cuts hard on entertainment.
It’s actually the reverse as pace, narrative drive, tension and action are all maintained more or less throughout the eight episodes.
Even if characterisation, depth and subtlety are left somewhat at the door of perception – giving a whole exercise an unrelenting forward momentum which may leave you breathless but also baffled.
So Stranger Things is nothing of the sort. But Winona certainly is. But she’s still good too – because she fits perfectly into something that is so desperate to make an impact that it throws the kitchen sink at a genre aching for a revival.
It’s a sort of love-letter to the Spielberg’s, the Tobe Hooper’s, and even, the Sam Raimi’s.
And, weirdly, Pink Floyd (okay, I made that up).
But a few more (flying) saucers full of secrets rather than At Em Heart Mother wouldn’t go amiss.