There’s a wonderfully poignant and tantalisingly brief scene in Toy Story when Woody, the raggedly old cowboy doll, comes to terms with the impact of new arrival Buzz Lightyear – a spiffier, fancier, cooler toy his owner Andy has become obsessed with. Andy rips down posters of Woody and replaces them with posters of Buzz as Randy Newman croons that “strange things are happening”.
The inference, at least at first blush, is that these strange things are happening to the old play thing, who is suddenly contemplating life eternal as a Puff the Magic Dragon-esque figure slinking ruefully into his cave forevermore. But the moment is just as much about Andy: a glimpse of a boy growing up. Not into a man, but a slightly older boy, one baby step closer to full-blown adolescence.
Stranger things are happening in a new, fantastically addictive eight-part series on Netflix, which reiterates the streaming giant’s status as king of the land of TV binge watching.
The show is that Toy Story scene extended into the realms of fantasy and ’80s-style genre homage. Think a supernaturally-tinged The Goonies mixed with E.T. and Stand By Me, with innumerable count-the-inspirations and spot-the-references and a liberal dose of bat-shit crazy spooks thrown in for good measure.
Most of the key characters are on the brink of puberty, facing a heady cocktail of emotions at a time in their lives when attitudes towards adults are mixed, or even contradictory: they aspire to grow up but share a deep suspicion of all these older people.
On his way home from a friend’s house after a round of Dungeons & Dragons, 12-year-old Will Byers (Noah Schnapp) disappears without a trace after seeing something strange. Meanwhile a young girl named Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) appears in a local restaurant (the show is set in Indiana in the 1980s) in a hospital gown with a shaved head.
Winona Ryder gives a great, frazzled, flaky, fingernails-down-the-chalkboard performance.
She is also, well, strange, blessed/cursed – with psychokinetic abilities that are teased out over time. Eleven becomes a part of Byers’ friendship group, around which much of the story takes place. Youngsters Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) and Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) are forced to confront battling real monsters, not board game ones.
To say Will’s mother Joyce is distressed by all this is putting it lightly. Her character heralds a retro return to form for Winona Ryder, who gives a great, frazzled, flaky, fingernails-down-the-chalkboard performance that sees her talking to lights and terrorised by spectres moving inside walls.
Created by Matt and Ross Duffer (aka The Duffer Brothers), who also write and direct several episodes, Stranger Things begins in classic creature feature mode. In a hospital/military looking facility there are sirens, lights and a wailing alarm. We watch a freaked-out lab rat run down a hallway and gobbled up by an unseen force.
But as Game of Thrones handled their zombie-esque creatures, the White Walkers (which were introduced in the first scene of the first episode then pushed aside for a long time) the Duffer Brothers keep the monster up their sleeve for much later.
The jam-packed nature of the show, its plotline packed to the gills with fantasy and horror bits and bobs, feels like a response to current spoiler-averse online culture. Lost children, ESP, alternate worlds, a monster mash, government conspiracy and Poltergeist-esque interactions between technology and the supernatural are all part of its bump-in-the-night fabric. The Duffers appear to be saying: go ahead and just try to spoil this, suckers.
Stranger Things is a hugely entertaining exercise in homage and hat-tipping.
Stranger Things somehow manages to pull off the trick of feeling inventive, despite the creators stockpiling familiar storytelling properties and endlessly recycling them. There is a Spielbergian sense of atmospheric largesse to it, with a Paul Jennings or Goosebumps-esque undercurrent of spooks to keep the pace cracking and the story wildly oscillating between thought bubbles and story digressions, some more compelling than others.
Episodes often end on hair-trigger cliff hangers and the young squadron of cast are key to its appeal. It’s probably not fair to single out one particular performer, but what the hell: young Finn Wolfhard (what a name!) is especially impressive, with his whippet-like face and wonderful, high-arched cheekbones, like Shelley Duvall circa The Shining or a friendlier, lemonade-drinking incarnate of Edvard Munch’s The Scream.
A hugely entertaining exercise in homage and hat-tipping, Stranger Things contains lots of juicy fodder to yak about around the proverbial water cooler. It is such a mix-and-match it feels at times like a sort of television lucky dip. The sum of the show’s parts, however, is a memorable story largely about the junction between childhood and puberty, and puberty and adolescence. If the kooky genre stuff has a limited shelf life, this part will never – unlike the quickly aging characters – get old.