Total Recall

Eleven Movies That Inspired Stranger Things

We look back at some of the many films that helped inspire Netflix's '80s-set horror hit.

by | October 25, 2017 | Comments

As much as we all love the movies around here, there’s nothing quite like binge-watching a fresh batch of well-made serial entertainment, and this weekend, Netflix is serving up one of the year’s most highly anticipated new seasons. We’re talking, of course, about Stranger Things — and in honor of its return, we decided to dedicate this feature to a look at some of the many films that helped inspire the streaming service’s ’80s-set horror hit. Toast up some Eggos, because it’s time for Total Recall, Stranger Things style!


Alien (1979) 98%

(Photo by 20th Century Fox Film Corp.)

Stranger Things‘ setting of Hawkins, Indiana is clearly quite different from the reaches of deep space where we meet the crew of the Nostromo in Alien. Still, it’s easy to see how the Duffer brothers took inspiration from Ridley Scott’s sci-fi/horror classic — most obviously in the way those imprisoned in the Upside Down are forcibly used as incubators for the offspring of its monstrous denizens, and in the way the Demogorgon’s nightmarish face opens like the world’s worst flower (or a xenomorph’s egg). Given the way poor Will yarfed up a nasty remnant of his time in captivity, we’re guessing we’ve seen far from the last instance of Alien‘s body horror influence on the show.


Altered States (1980) 84%

(Photo by Warner Bros. courtesy Everett Collection)

The first time Eleven is plunged into her sensory deprivation tank in order to access the Upside Down, film buffs saw a clear parallel to this 1980 cult classic, in which William Hurt plays a psychologist who uses a similar apparatus to explore the theory that human consciousness is far more vast and complex than we’re able to understand in our waking hours. Using a combination of drugs and sensory deprivation, he undergoes a series of progressively more profound transformations, until — like Eleven — crossing the line between realities threatens to consume him altogether. Stranger Things hasn’t given us primitive man or a many-eyed goat yet, but as the second-season teasers have shown us, there’s still a lot we don’t know about the Upside Down.


E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) 98%

Steven Spielberg’s classic 1982 hit is a lot of things, but underneath everything, it’s the story of a group of kids banding together to protect their powerful yet vulnerable — and decidedly unusual — new friend from an encroaching adult menace. It’s a fight that comes with no small amount of peril, and one that’s destined to demand some heartbreaking sacrifice before it’s over, but our brave protagonists still insist on standing up for what’s right, and doing it largely without (deliberate) assistance from the unwitting adult authority figures in their lives. And okay, so Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) never made a bike fly across the night sky, but she did flip a freakin’ van with the power of her mind — and just like E.T. loved his Reese’s Pieces, she can’t get enough Eggo waffles.


Firestarter (1984) 35%

This is a little bit of a cheat, because although the Duffer brothers were clearly influenced by Firestarter — along with an assortment of other Stephen King stories, including IT — they took their inspiration from the bestselling horror master’s books rather than their film adaptations. Still, we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention the story of young Charlie McGee (Drew Barrymore), a young girl whose growing pyrokinetic powers are the inherited result of a shadowy government program… and very much desired by the men in pursuit of Charlie and her dad, who’ve fled their captors’ grasp and are determined to live in freedom rather than be forced to use their gifts for potentially nefarious purposes. Eleven did a pretty bang-up job of evading Dr. Brenner during Stranger Things‘ first season, but if she ends up back on the run in season two, Charlie’s adventures might offer a few tips for staying a step ahead of special agents.


The Gate (1987) 55%

(Photo by New Century Vista Film courtesy Everett Collection)

You never know what’ll be waiting when you open a portal to another dimension, but it’s always a pretty safe bet that at least one nasty surprise will be waiting on the other side. We’ve seen it happen in sci-fi over and over again for years, and 1987’s The Gate offers a perfect (and perfectly ’80s) example of those dangers in action. Like the foolhardy crew at Hawkins National Laboratory who coerce poor Eleven into mucking around with the Upside Down, the boys in The Gate (played by Stephen Dorff and Louis Tripp) end up getting more than they bargained for when they poke a hole in the barrier between worlds — heck, we even see the old “stretching wall” trick in action.


The Goonies (1985) 75%

(Photo by Warner Bros. courtesy Everett Collection)

Long before Stranger Things rounded up a gang of junior misfits to tell a tale of adventure with horror overtones, dozens of directors made memorable use of that familiar dynamic for films that thrilled audiences while making them nostalgic for their misspent youth (or, for younger filmgoers, sent them home with dreams of doing anything half as cool as the stuff they’d just seen). But given the Duffer brothers’ fondness for all things ’80s, we’re inclined to point to The Goonies and The Monster Squad as two of the show’s more obvious sources of inspiration. Like the Goonies, our Hawkins heroes aren’t the coolest kids in school — and like the Monster Squad, they’ve experienced stuff that would send many of the adults in their lives straight into therapy. Strength in numbers always counts for a lot, but it’s even more meaningful during the years before you get your driver’s license.


The Manhattan Project (1986) 50%

(Photo by 20th Century Fox Film Corp.)

The post-Watergate years were great for paranoid, politically tinged thrillers — particularly in the early ’80s, when rapidly advancing technology mingled with Cold War fears to produce cinema that imagined computer-driven conspiracies lurking behind even the most innocuous-seeming suburban landscapes. That paranoia fueled 1986’s The Manhattan Project, in which a government scientist’s top-secret lab is disguised as a medical company in upstate New York… and a particularly smart kid ends up bogarting plutonium from the facility so he can build a bomb for his big science fair project. The kids in Stranger Things haven’t had to defuse a warhead yet, but the secret misdeeds going on inside the Hawkins National Laboratory could end up being far more explosive.


A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) 94%

(Photo by New Line Cinema)

The Demogorgon doesn’t have a razor-clawed glove, a fedora, or a ratty striped sweater. Still, there are some clear parallels between A Nightmare on Elm Street‘s Freddy Krueger and Stranger Things‘ big bad from the Upside Down — first spotted in the second episode of the first season (titled “The Weirdo on Maple Street”), during which the wall of Will Byers’ room is seen stretching with the strain of something trying to get in, Krueger style. In the season climax, Jonathan and Nancy decide to do battle against the Demogorgon by outfitting the Byers home with booby traps and luring the monster in — much the same way Freddy met his (first) demise in the original Nightmare.


Poltergeist (1982) 85%

(Photo by MGM)

After poor Will Byers (Noah Schnapp) gets trapped in the Upside Down, and his mom Joyce (Winona Ryder) struggles to communicate with him — first via freaky phone connection, then through messages sent by Christmas lights — it is, like much of Stranger Things, both scary and poignant. But it’s also kind of familiar, at least to anyone who’s ever watched Poltergeist: poor Carol Anne Freeling (Heather O’Rourke) spends much of the movie separated from her desperate parents, held captive by a supernatural evil and only able to reach out through the static on the family TV. And like Carol Anne, Will is ultimately drawn back to life by the power of his mother’s love — although it isn’t enough to prevent lingering traces of the other side from coming with him.


Scanners (1981) 74%

To see the influences exerted by some of the movies on this list, you need to have a fairly observant eye. Not so David Cronenberg’s 1981 sci-fi horror classic Scanners, which — like Stranger Things — involves a shadowy group of powerful people determined to maintain control over a powerful telepath. Stranger Things has included a lot less head-exploding action thus far, but hey — we’re only up to the second season so far. You never know what might happen next.


Stand by Me (1986) 91%

(Photo by Columbia Pictures courtesy Everett Collection)

It would be easy enough to draw parallels between Stranger Things and any classic movie about kids on a potentially life-threatening adventure. Still, Stand by Me stands out as one of the more obvious points of reference — not least because it was adapted from a Stephen King story. And while there may not be a straight line between Stranger Things and King’s tale of four friends braving local bullies to catch a glimpse of a dead body, there are a number of visual references, and there’s still plenty of overlap; both are period pieces, albeit set in different eras, and both delve into the darker elements of that fraught area between childhood and the adult world. (Also, they both boast a killer soundtrack.)

Tag Cloud

spain Martial Arts Nickelodeon screen actors guild GoT VH1 true crime comiccon Writers Guild of America USA HBO TNT Sundance Now transformers werewolf cancelled television Warner Bros. Rocketman cancelled justice league Sundance psycho PlayStation Cartoon Network Spike cancelled TV shows Family Premiere Dates Infographic Musical social media crime thriller Amazon Prime Video mutant war festivals medical drama sports rotten Hallmark Black History Month cults Pirates joker Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt Mindy Kaling 2019 comics classics Chernobyl foreign fast and furious obituary casting docudrama hollywood Television Critics Association Disney+ Disney Plus Logo Certified Fresh doctor who MCU Trophy Talk ITV technology PBS batman WarnerMedia Classic Film Box Office DirecTV biography Mary Tyler Moore 4/20 dceu Podcast E3 LGBT Video Games Paramount Sci-Fi SXSW zombie halloween Winter TV harry potter Mystery movies A&E Britbox stop motion Amazon NBC Year in Review discovery Mudbound Fantasy Oscars Adult Swim sag awards YouTube Premium universal monsters ghosts Trivia children's TV robots Interview TV renewals Pop TV game show tv talk natural history TruTV Tarantino Thanksgiving historical drama stand-up comedy Christmas dc Bravo asian-american Election Baby Yoda DGA spider-man Paramount Network renewed TV shows finale book Hear Us Out Marvel Nominations disaster spy thriller A24 political drama documentary Pet Sematary Acorn TV Disney streaming service crossover Showtime best Columbia Pictures YouTube Red Heroines American Society of Cinematographers Film Festival Starz Discovery Channel CBS All Access VICE Fall TV cats CMT Turner hist BBC America comic spinoff hispanic First Look San Diego Comic-Con aliens The Witch 21st Century Fox Country blaxploitation Endgame Valentine's Day Emmy Nominations CW Seed 2017 Awards PaleyFest dark BAFTA E! series 2016 kids composers green book First Reviews IFC nbcuniversal Epix Summer Creative Arts Emmys Extras Television Academy nature canceled films cinemax X-Men documentaries free movies reviews Shondaland travel award winner YA Vudu rotten movies we love Comedy Sony Pictures dragons 24 frames Watching Series Film elevated horror DC Universe Biopics History Opinion 45 zero dark thirty Schedule Superheroes all-time teaser TCA Winter 2020 diversity twilight Comics on TV child's play 007 CNN Turner Classic Movies HBO Max Calendar Universal slashers superhero Mary Poppins Returns singing competition ratings ABC Family what to watch NYCC SundanceTV Pop Esquire Marvel Television screenings franchise RT21 science fiction video on demand Polls and Games Rocky Dark Horse Comics Music anime Comic Book APB Set visit indiana jones 20th Century Fox Grammys Tomatazos 2020 RT History TV adventure criterion Pride Month ESPN Holiday Superheroe breaking bad Anna Paquin DC streaming service canceled TV shows toy story romantic comedy Tumblr Academy Awards Song of Ice and Fire emmy awards Crunchyroll Marvel Studios witnail cars 2015 reboot Nat Geo golden globes quibi CBS Netflix Food Network worst Winners Rock Walt Disney Pictures Ovation Horror Rom-Com mission: impossible The Arrangement Drama IFC Films Freeform Apple TV+ television cops adaptation versus Captain marvel VOD sequels Best and Worst Disney Syfy Marathons Crackle HBO Go facebook Comedy Central spanish language die hard Kids & Family game of thrones Hallmark Christmas movies The Walking Dead Super Bowl WGN Cosplay Spring TV OWN FXX MSNBC anthology thriller National Geographic politics Hulu video Reality directors Lucasfilm DC Comics GLAAD See It Skip It Masterpiece unscripted Trailer Quiz christmas movies Lionsgate BET binge independent MTV Travel Channel crime drama Black Mirror streaming a nightmare on elm street cartoon based on movie critics TBS zombies Lifetime 71st Emmy Awards Holidays The Purge OneApp animated Sundance TV Brie Larson Shudder Action concert talk show Musicals Teen TLC movie Mary poppins crime space comedies President Disney Channel cancelled TV series latino New York Comic Con dogs Stephen King Awards Tour psychological thriller police drama The CW Avengers supernatural Tubi Peacock romance name the review Sneak Peek cooking laika revenge YouTube blockbuster BBC One scary movies 72 Emmy Awards Apple Reality Competition boxoffice LGBTQ stoner Disney Plus Spectrum Originals Binge Guide sitcom BET Awards Ghostbusters theme song Star Wars south america Star Trek FX TCM ABC Apple TV Plus TCA 2017 mockumentary sequel chucky Red Carpet BBC Funimation news GIFs SDCC Pixar Emmys El Rey strong female leads indie Character Guide TV Land Photos TIFF Fox News serial killer vampires richard e. Grant FX on Hulu AMC USA Network Countdown Ellie Kemper parents FOX Cannes Western Amazon Studios Arrowverse Animation 2018 Women's History Month miniseries Toys TCA Awards TCA Chilling Adventures of Sabrina dramedy satire Elton John jamie lee curtis period drama Netflix Christmas movies Amazon Prime Lifetime Christmas movies