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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)