Have Happened Indeed
Stranger Things almost made it to our Life’s Too Short section because its pilot promises a fan fiction collage of Stephen King and Steven Spielberg with enough Dungeons & Dragons, Tolkien and early 80s pop culture references to give one a severe case of déjà-vu. And in 80s references we include Winona Ryder. But the series has a few things going for it: first, it’s mercifully short with only eight episodes; second, there are much worse references than Stephen & Steven, at the peak of their respective trade; third, for all its implicit boredom, the pilot has a couple of redeeming features. So let’s spend our August hiatus on the series, should we?
Stranger Things S1E1: The Vanishing of Will Buyers
Boys Meet Girl
1983: something has gone wrong in the East wing of an American Department of Energy lab in Hawkins, Indiana. Little do the population know that a dark force has been unleashed and is about to change the course of their life forever. You, yawning on the back, just stop reading and go out, except if you are a Dungeons & Dragons fan, because look, they used the same font for the series’ credit! Also, the series’ title uses the same font than early 80s King’s novels! And that make sense, because in the first scene the four kid group lifted off from The Body (Stand By Me onscreen) are playing D&D, in front of Carpenter’s The Thing poster, no less. But it’s bedtime so they are sent home on their bikes under a stary sky. Does this scene feel familiar? Just wait, there’s more. Plenty more.
So Will Buyers, second son of a broken family, vanishes after being chased by a mysterious entity. His mother Joyce (Winona Ryder, obviously off her meds) instantly switches to hysteria and go move her hands a lot and shrills at the sheriff that school bullies have threatened her kid because he is special, and called him a fag. “Is he?” calmly asks the sheriff, and here’s a first redeeming point: a few characters are actually likable. Not many, mind, but some.
A search party takes place, whose purpose is not really to find Will but to inform viewers that if the sheriff had a beer, fag and pill breakfast of champions it’s because he’s in denial that his daughter died a few years before. Point taken. Also, the three remaining kids are super high on sugar and decide to go find Will themselves in the most unprepared way possible (King’s The Body, It, Dreamcatcher, etc.).
Meanwhile, meet the villain of the piece, Dr Brenner (Matthew Modine, as vintage as Ryder but looking far less demented). He grimly assesses that the East wing has been redecorated Silent Hill style, including living decay and falling ashes, and that a viscous thingy is developing on a wall. Would that be vintage latex practical effects? That would be a second bonus point. Hearing a lot of Tangerine Dream, real or fake, doesn’t really count though,as analogue synths, real or fake, are everywhere on soundtracks nowadays.
Enter Eleven, a young girl with a buzz cut who had escaped the laboratory (King’s Firestarter) and has some telekinetic powers (King’s Carrie). Millie Bobby Brown is a far better actress than her male counterparts and her scene with the owner of a diner (Chris Sullivan) where she finds refuge and food is the pilot’s best, as they convey a real Stephen King vibe of ordinary, decent people suddenly confronted with inimaginable events. It’s too bad than it stops abruptly while the early 80s synth score switches to Jefferson Airplane’s White Rabbit (not exactly period-relevant or even clever for indicating a switch in reality) and Toto’s Africa (alas, more so on both accounts).
Eleven runs into the woods and bumps into the three kids’ search party. End of part one. Well. One can understand the appeal of Eightiesiana even though one is unable to feel it. One can recognise the ambition – and no doubt the love – put into the writing of Stranger Things so far. It’s just, you know, it looks and sounds like a Best Of Eighties Supernatural Movies without anything to go for itself. Does the thing (pun intended) has a mind of its own, or is it just mimicking earlier – and not necessarily better, by the way – works? Stay tune, we’ll see!