[WARNING - This review contains SPOILERS for Stranger Things season 1.]
The fingerprints of Steven Spielberg, John Carpenter, and Stephen King are all over Netflix's latest series, Stranger Things. Not only are their works obviously invoked - King himself is at one point mentioned and posters for both Jaws and The Thing appear - but many of the themes and motifs from their novels and films are infused into the very DNA of Stranger Things.
This isn't to suggest Stranger Things - the brainchild of Matt and Ross Duffer - is a blatant ripoff or parody, but instead the best kind of homage, one that admires the work and combines its elements into something entirely new. Over the course of its eight episodes, Stranger Things builds tension and its characters' relationships equally, slowly dialing up the stakes as the circumstances surrounding Will Byer's (Noah Schnapp) disappearance become more disquieting. Beginning with its mysterious abduction and leading to an outright monster hunt, Stranger Things is an addicting series that doesn't neglect its story for cheap scares or needless drama.
In its finale, 'The Upside Down', Stranger Things' three different threads - Joyce (Winona Ryder) and Hopper's (David Harbour) search for Will, Nancy (Natalia Dyer) and Jonathan's (Charlie Heaton) hunt for the creature, and Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), and Lucas' (Caleb McLaughlin) quest to keep Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) safe - all come to a head in dramatic fashion. Each plot is eventually resolved, though not always in the manner we'd expect, in the end becoming more than just a collection of spooky tales, but a healing of families and relationships that were broken long before Will disappeared. This is most apparent in Joyce and Hopper's venture into the Upside Down (depicted as an eerie reproduction of the real world that's overgrown, strewn with debris, and has dust constantly drifting through the air), where Joyce's desperate search for her son is inter cut with flashbacks of Hopper's daughter's diagnosis and eventual death from cancer. The interplay between terror of the unknown and the very real dangers of disease isn't anything revolutionary, but it's used here to great effect, highlighting how personal Will's strange abduction becomes even for the gruff police chief.
While Joyce and Hopper's searching for Will explores a parental love, Nancy and Jonathan's journey is reminiscent of slasher movies where two teens form an unlikely pair, eventually falling for one another. Unfortunately, Stranger Things doesn't choose to unite the two in the end, with Nancy returning to Steve - a character who did show something of a change of heart but was still for most of the short series a total creep. Still, there's enough of a suggestion Nancy hasn't entirely abandoned her growing feelings for Jonathan, a hint at future developments, and it does lend itself to realism that the two aren't exactly living 'happily ever after'.
The adventure of the boys and Eleven also explores love in its many facets, both friendships and the earliest inklings of romantic love discovered at a young age. And where Joyce and Hopper's time in the Upside Down feels like alien horror and Nancy and Jonathan's battle with the creature is like something out of a monster movie, it's El who gets to embrace the action hero role in the story. Her abilities are never fully explained, but they are without question devastatingly powerful. The final confrontation between her and the creature sees Eleven go full-Jean Grey, using her immense power to destroy the creature but also (seemingly) sacrifice herself. This again only hearkens back to themes of family, friendship, and love, showing just how much El learned and absorbed in her brief time living with Mike.
As for the creature itself, the design is simplistic in how unnerving it is. Mostly humanoid, its "face" unfolds into four fleshy petals revealing a monstrous, gaping hole that it uses to feast on its prey. It can be terrifying to see, and especially in the ways in which Strangers Things chooses to feature it - usually in brief flashes, with strobing lights that make it near impossible to ever get a clear look at it. There are, however, a few nagging questions the series never tries to answer: What exactly is the Upside Down? Another dimension? How is it some can travel between that world and ours at will, while others must use a physical entry way? Why was the creature hoarding humans and keeping them alive with a strange, tentacle-based life support? What actually happened to El? She vanished, but is she actually gone? Some of these lingering questions will undoubtedly be answered in a second season, which is certainly the plan given how the series ends, though nothing has yet been officially announced. But if not, they're one of the few frustrating aspects of the series as a whole.
With its blend of government conspiracies, alternate dimensions, an alien-like monster, and unexplained supernatural abilities, Stranger Things combines the best elements of the horror genre. Smartly scripted with fantastic and genuine performances - especially from its child actors - this series offers up an emotional and compelling narrative. Add to it an eerie score from Kyle Dixon and Michel Stein and its impeccable recreation of 1980s, small town America, and Stranger Things is exactly what a nostalgia-laden, creepy thriller should be.
All episodes of Stranger Things are now available to stream on Netflix.