Remix culture is a hell of a drug.
It takes something familiar and also popular and proven, but puts a fresh take on it. It's why Lady Gaga made a fortune channeling Madonna, David Bowie, Steve McQueen and others - to produce a "best of" everything we've seen in pop music in thirty years. Likewise Marilyn Manson combined KISS, Alice Cooper and a few other influences to produce a steamy gumbo of adolescent rebellion. It's something new, something borrowed. Familiar but fresh.
So when Stranger Things, a Netflix series from the 2010s comes on, with its theme a combination of synthwave 80s sonic references backing a faded glowing neon effect last seen in 1980s films - there's already something vaguely familiar. 80's B-grade horror film meets the font from the Choose your own Adventure books.
The "Sleepy backwoods midwest town" is reminiscent of Stephen King. As is the "little girl with psychic powers" trope. As is the "small group of boys just on the cusp of adolescence, and the girl who comes between them". That's an 80s trope for sure, heck, it's in many a film - from just about every work by the aforementioned Stephen King to The Goonies. In fact, in a kind of meta-shoutout, breakout star Finn Wolfhard in essence reprised a role his character was spiritually based on by appearing in the remake of It.
The slowly unravelling mystery with some dark, shadowy government conspiracy is straight out of The X-Files. The small town cop with a heart of gold - also an 80s antihero.
And of course you have the classic 80s movie set pieces. School cliques. After school clubs. Dungeons and Dragons. School bullying, something which modern audiences would find awful, but apparently was way worse in real life back in that day. Girls getting a "rep" back when that actually meant something. Those awful high waisted pants and that strange short haircut a lot of 80s girls rocked.
Another nice bit of familiarity is the choice of actors. Winona Ryder is back after disappearing in the 90s due to some shoplifting-related lunacy. As is Mathew Modine. And the mother of the kid that finds the crazy girl is none other than the older sister from Sixteen Candles. The torch is passed from a generation that was in movies as children to a new group of breakout stars. Winona is delightfully showing her age by being completely out of touch with her young cast. They tried to explain to her what "Snapchat" is and she thought it had something to do with food.
As for the something new?
Without giving too much spoilerama away - grief and loss are usually seen from adult perspectives. One of the key things in this series is the disappearance and discovery of the body of one of a group of friends. Whereas most movies would center on the mother's grief, and Winona Ryder gets to chew up the scenery doing agonizing tearjerking scene after appearing to descend into madness scene - this one equally follows the grief of the group of kids who were his friends. And the actors are very up to the task, with both Finn Wolfhard (whose name I will use a lot, given its Awesome McCoolname sound) and Millie Bobby Brown having to cry, and cry a lot. Many times all they're given to work with is a haltingly spoken single line, or a look. And they nail it. These kids are ones to watch.
A main reason why this works as well is that it takes a season to go through the whole scenario. You get tantalizing glimpses of the full picture, with more pieces falling into place as time moves on. And as an homage to the source material, it doesn't bother much with exposition. You don't really know who the Big Bads are, just that they're "the government" and "bad men". Just like in the original source material. As such it gives them more menace, as you're much more intimidated by the unknown than the known. It also leaves the spotlight on the shattered people trying to piece together enough - not to take down the Big Bad - but to simply find their loved ones. Alive.
A second series was commissioned, and a third is about to be developed. It's shot in the Atlanta area, and some people can recognize the secret laboratory as, well, actually, parts of the Emory University. The bulk of it is shot in a small town near Atlanta, which explains why even in November, there's really no snow, and the leaves are far more autumnal, as is normal in Georgia in that time of year. In fact, the whole place really looks like Georgia.
The sad thing is, I only started watching this to understand the references in a Sesame Street skit about "Sharing Things" which lampoons everything from Cookie Monster as Demogorgon to Winona Ryder's den mother character handing out Hallowe'en treats. There's a bit with a girl wearing candy wrappers I'm not familar with yet, but they gave Ernie missing front teeth to match the congenital illness that one of its young stars has, causing his teeth to grow in at a far later date than normal.
But as it is shot in Georgia and such, I hope to get an extra role at some point in it before it jumps the shark. Wish me luck.