Recent years have seen Netflix become home to many highly acclaimed original series, spanning across the genres, from drama to comedy, documentary, and animation. Their latest offering, premiering today, is Stranger Things; an eight-part miniseries about a young boy who mysteriously vanishes from a quaint, 1980s Midwestern town. It's the sort of setting that comes to mind when recalling E.T. or The Goonies, or even more recently, J.J. Abram's Super 8, itself a blatant homage to Spielbergian cinema.
When Will (Noah Schnapp) mysteriously disappears one evening, his mother, Joyce (Winona Ryder) becomes frantic in her search for her missing son. While Joyce pleads with Chief Hopper (David Harbour) to organize an official search party, Will's friends take it upon themselves to look for their missing friend, eventually stumbling on another lost child -- a young girl with unusual and dangerous abilities known only by the number, Eleven (Millie Brown).
Stranger Things -- written and directed by Wayward Pines' Matt and Ross Duffer -- is laden in 1980s nostalgia, placing its suspenseful tale in a peaceful neighborhood where sessions of Dungeons & Dragons are played late into the evening. It has a disarming effect, letting us lose ourselves in the familiarity of it all, looking back fondly on a simpler time. That is until the more eerie and unsettling elements of the series begin, with moments of unseen creatures and strange abductions that would feel right at home in an episode of The X-Files.
Capitalizing on a bygone era isn't original by any means and recent years have seen the 1980s mined for ideas over and over, but Strangers Things' setting is a necessary element of the story, not merely cashing in on the latest fad. It also isn't constantly winking at audiences with the sense of, "Hey, remember when life was like this?" The series is as close a recreation of the childhoods depicted on screen in many 1980s movies, like those from Speilberg and John Carpenter which so clearly have influenced the Duffer brothers, but avoids coming across like a cheap imitation. In its premiere, Stranger Things finds the spookiness in everything - from a late night bike ride on a deserted street to the flickering and buzzing of an old-fashioned light bulb. These little flourishes really help with setting the mood for the series, one where life appears idyllic at first but is in fact rather sinister.
It should be noted there are genuine scares in its first hour, too, and they come from a variety of sources - a creature lurking in the shadows, a mother frantic to find her missing child, suspicious activity from a mysterious government agency. Combining these aspects, these different kinds of horror allow Stranger Things to avoid too much comparison with works that may have included something similar, making from them a series that is more than just the sum of its parts.
As Will's panic-stricken mother, Ryder delivers a heart-breaking performance, bringing real agony to Joyce's desperation. Harbour's role as the weary police chief charged with finding him is equally compelling, and for not entirely dissimilar reasons as it's suggested he too understands the unique pain of losing a child. However, it's the young actors who carry a bulk of the emotional weight in the Stranger Things premiere, something they each pull off easily, bringing a real believability to their roles. From Will and his friends (Schnapp, Finn Wolfhard, Gaten Matarazzo, and Caleb McLaughlin) to the slightly older teenagers (Cara Buono, Charlie Heaton), all of the young cast feel like real kids, real people. Their performances are genuine, and it elevates the story at hand and gives a credibility to some of the truly bizarre happenings. Speaking of which, Brown's Eleven doesn't have a whole lot to do during the premiere, but she makes the most of her few scenes, earnestly portraying a lost, desperate girl one moment, and evoking a chilling menace the next. The transition is deceptively quick, and it may be the most terrifying part of the premiere, teasing the immensity of the strange power she possesses.
Stranger Things is a spooky thriller presented with just enough of a 1980s pastiche it creates a mood which only heightens the horror. The nostalgia is palpable, but then so is the terror which is so multilayered, pulling at a number of primal fears. The premiere suggests the series will only continue ramping up the suspense, leaving Will's friends and family in the dark about his fate while slowly revealing the truth of Eleven's powers and the shadowy government agency's role in each case. Managing that, Stranger Things should prove captivating, the perfect show watch over these summer nights.
All episodes of Stranger Things are now available to stream on Netflix.