As I was watching Netflix’s spooky new drama Stranger Things, a friend asked me how the show was.
"It’s scary!" I said, then quickly realized that wasn’t quite accurate and qualified the statement accordingly: "It’s scary in the way that Poltergeist is scary when you stumble across it on TV when you’re 8."
And that response, I think, is the key to Stranger Things’ success. The show is an elaborate collection of homages and references to '80s movies, and most works made via collage can’t help but feel like fuzzy copies of the originals — perhaps made on a ditto machine (to nod toward the series’ '80s small-town setting).
But even though I usually can’t stand these sorts of projects, I found myself falling for Stranger Things all the same. At first, I thought it was because the series tries to subvert some of the tropes it employs, but it doesn’t, not really. It deepens and expands them, but it also largely adheres to them, outside of a couple of small tweaks around the show’s edges.
So why does Stranger Things work? Because it captures the feeling of watching all the '80s movies it pays tribute to, for the very first time.
Movie references and homages are hard to do well
Usually, a movie reference or homage is just that — a quick nod toward a different work in the referring director’s cinematic vocabulary. The director points toward a movie they found influential, viewers who understand the reference smile in recognition, and everything continues apace.
There are many clumsy examples of this — like, say, the terrible movie spoofs that believe simply restaging some famous scene counts as worthwhile humor — but there are also many very good ones, as when director Brian De Palma turned an elaborate action sequence in his 1987 film The Untouchables into an extensive reimagining of the stairway massacre in 1925’s Battleship Potemkin.
But all of these references ultimately ask the audience to step outside the movie at hand, just a little bit. It’s like playing a game where you’re asked to find a hidden object or something, rather than take in the picture as a whole. Especially if you’re a film fan, it’s hard not to be just a little bit distracted by the frequent allusion.
And in some cases, that’s the point. The director wants you to recognize how clever they are, or wants you to associate some of your presumably positive opinion of the work being referenced with the work that’s making the reference. (Or if you’re De Palma, you’re often trying to simply have fun and show off by one-upping your cinematic inspirations.)
What’s different about Matt and Ross Duffer, the brothers who created Stranger Things and directed all but two of its eight episodes, is that their homages and references are couched, somehow, in an acute memory of and nostalgia for the movies they nod toward. The question their references ask isn’t, "Hey, do you remember watching this?" It’s, "Hey, do you remember the way you felt the first time you watched this?"
To understand the difference, consider one of the references Stranger Things makes that doesn’t work as well as some of the others — the creepy, black void that superpowered psychic girl Eleven visits while the government tries to use her to open links to other worlds. It’s a direct lift from the recent sci-fi film Under the Skin, where a murderous alien uses such a void to both seduce and then essentially erase (by sucking them into said void) the men she picks up and brings home.
In Under the Skin, the void feels like an eerie netherworld, utterly unlike anything else on Earth. In Stranger Things, it feels like a nod toward Under the Skin, one that attempts to pin down the original void with rules of how it operates and, thus, makes it feel a little less threatening and mysterious.
Stranger Things elevates its references by giving them emotional drive
Again, look at the show’s use of horror. Yes, you can point, if you want to, to the many iconic film monsters that Stranger Things’ monster stands in for. (It sounds like the Predator, for instance, and it makes the walls bulge like the evil spirits in Poltergeist.)
But what’s far more potent is the way the Duffer brothers use the monster both as an emotional metaphor for the problems the show’s characters don’t want to face, and to subvert the audience’s expectations for how a monster should behave in a story like this.
This emotional connection allows the Duffers to get away with a lot. Stranger Things’ teenage love triangle, for instance, shouldn’t work as well as it does, because all three characters barely transcend their stereotypes.
But the love triangle is steeped so heavily in other versions of this basic story that it feels less like a retelling and more like a version of this story that has passed into myth. By the time this triangle reaches its surprising conclusion, the show has genuinely made you feel for the characters.
Thus, the show doesn’t really use its references as a shortcut for storytelling, but as a shortcut for the emotions you should be feeling at certain points throughout the story.
Stranger Things’ plot is about as stripped-down and uncomplicated as you can get. But by hanging certain homages and references off of that very basic framework, the show can play around with emotions it doesn’t strictly earn. The monster isn’t truly scary — it’s a suggestion of something scary, and that works well enough.
Now, this isn’t the only reason Stranger Things succeeds. Most of the show’s characters (or, rather, most of the male characters) are nicely developed, and the Duffers have a real gift for unexpectedly creepy visuals.
But its homage-based storytelling technique allows Stranger Things to have its cake and eat it too. You can follow it all the way down the rabbit hole, poring over every single reference in its extensive index of other works. Or you can just sit back and enjoy the ride, thanks to that bare-bones storytelling.
In so many ways, then, Stranger Things feels like the epitome of a TV show people have to watch online — you can move straight through, or you can stop to click on all the links, to go and see the works cited.