In an era where there are hundreds of new shows and movies to stream each month, it’s amazing we’re still talking about Stranger Things three months after it debuted on Netflix. There’s a good chance it may end up the biggest pop culture landmark of 2016. And I couldn’t be happier about that.
Yes, it leans on the past a little too much, but Stranger Things isn’t just a remix of early ‘80s nostalgia. I don’t want to build the show up too much for anyone who hasn’t seen it yet, except to say I think you’ll like what you find.
For those who have watched it and can’t wait for the second season, here is a list of movies that most likely inspired the show’s creators, the Duffer Brothers. They’ll help tide you over till next year, and most of them will fit perfectly into your rotation of scary movies. I hope you pick at least one of them to enjoy/laugh at/patiently sit through for your friend or spouse this Halloween season.
**Oh – and some minor spoilers for Stranger Things.**
1) E.T. (1982)
The Duffer Brothers have said from the beginning that Steven Spielberg, Stephen King, and John Carpenter are their primary influences for this show. Despite having some scary moments, Steven Spielberg’s E.T. isn’t a horror film, but no other movie influenced the look of Stranger Things more. From pre-teens riding bicycles through suburban streets, to a scared boy exploring his backyard with a flashlight, to the main characters’ relationship with Eleven, E.T.’s DNA runs through every moment of this show.
There’s little to say about this movie that hasn’t been said before. If you haven’t revisited E.T. in a while, you’ll likely find something that’s even more suspenseful, bittersweet and rousing than you remembered.
2) The Thing (1982)
And now a complete 180 from E.T.
Instead of a cute extraterrestrial with a sweet tooth, The Thing features a shapeshifting alien who devours, mimics, and sows mistrust between a group of bickering researchers at an Antarctic base. John Carpenter’s The Thing had the misfortune of premiering two weeks after E.T. It’s easy to blame The Thing’s failure on E.T., but that’s not the only reason. It had grotesque gore effects that mainstream audiences weren’t ready for, along with a ‘70s cynicism that America was moving away from.
Thanks to time and home video, The Thing’s reputation continues to grow even now. It’s a clear favorite of the Duffer Brothers. The film’s poster is on prominent display in the basement where the kids play Dungeons & Dragons. And one episode lingers on a couple watching one of its most infamous gross-out scenes.
While the look of Stranger Things comes from Spielberg, its electronic score is an homage to John Carpenter, who wrote the music for most of his films, using then-modern synthesizers to unbelievable effect.
3) Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982)
Speaking of John Carpenter, here is his oddest contribution to cinema. After Carpenter killed off Michael Myers (theoretically for good) at the end of Halloween II, he planned on turning the franchise into an anthology series, with new stories set around the Halloween season.
In theory, a great idea. It just wasn’t a good idea to start the series off with Halloween III: Season of the Witch, a movie about an evil toy company that steals a rock from Stonehenge and uses it to bring about the apocalypse. If that sounds nutty to you now, wait till you watch it.
That being said, Halloween III is a lot of fun. Now let’s tie this to Stranger Things. One of that show’s standout performances is David Harbour as Chief Jim Hopper. And if Stranger Things was actually filmed in 1983, Hopper would be played by the star of Halloween III, ‘80s horror icon Tom Atkins.
Much like Hopper in Stranger Things, Tom Atkins’s character in Halloween III is a burned out, beer-swilling beefcake who stumbles upon things that go bump in the night. The big difference between the two: Hopper has good reasons to start the show in that state, while Tom Atkins just plays a deadbeat dad. A divorced, drunk, mustachioed lothario who is – get this – a practicing doctor. Like I said, this movie is bonkers.
4) Firestarter (1984)
As great as Stranger Things is, I don’t think it would have its staying power without Millie Bobby Brown as Eleven. I know it’s a clichéd expression, but she really is the heart of the show.
While Stranger Things wears its inspirations on its sleeve, Eleven’s origin story is the one plot point I recall that is directly copied and pasted from another story, Stephen King’s Firestarter. Just like Eleven, King’s story features a pre-teen girl (Drew Barrymore in the film) whose parents were dosed with LSD when she was conceived. And just like Eleven, her powers are steadily growing to the point where no one – possibly not even herself – can control them.
Firestarter isn’t my strongest recommendation on this list – both the book and the movie are middle-of-the-road King. There are still things to savor here, including a deep bench of great character actors and a wicked Tangerine Dream soundtrack.
5) A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
You need only one look at Nancy (Heather Langencamp) and Glen (Johnny Depp) in A Nightmare in Elm Street to see that Nancy and Steve from Stranger Things are, at least in appearance, carbon copies. And it’s no secret that the former Nancy inspired the latter: when confronted with real horrors, both Nancys find the resolve and the industriousness to take the fight to the monsters.
Despite a mixed bag of low-budget effects and its ‘80s-at-its-most-‘80s vibe, Nightmare is still a gritty, nasty film that could only come from the mind of Wes Craven. I’ve never liked the way the sequels turned Freddy Krueger – a monster before he became an actual monster – into a cartoon. So it’s always refreshing to revisit this film, which treats Krueger with a deathly seriousness. (Watch Craven’s underrated New Nightmare for his take on the sequels.)
That’s not to say I enjoy this incarnation of the character, exactly. But there’s a respect for monsters – real and imaginary – here that’s a trademark of great horror. And you can’t help but pump your fist in the air when Nancy takes that monster head-on.
Let’s now focus on three movies that evoke the core characters in Stranger Things, the D&D group searching for their lost friend.
The Goonies is the most famous of these picks. Produced by Steven Spielberg, the film feels like a classic ‘50s young adult adventure story filtered through the Spielberg dream machine. You’ve probably seen it, know it and love it. I’ve lost a little affection for The Goonies as an adult, but it’s still very, very charming.
Similar to The Thing’s relationship with E.T., Explorers came out a month after The Goonies and failed to reach a wide audience. Again, I’m not sure if Goonies is to blame, but it didn’t help. It’s similar to E.T. and Flight of the Navigator. Three kids start having strange dreams where they fly together through the clouds. With every new dream, they gain the knowledge to make a spaceship that will take them to a seemingly benevolent alien intelligence.
What they find will surprise and probably disappoint you. The film was rushed to theaters too quickly and the ending suffers for it. The rest of the movie is still pretty darn good, featuring early performances from Ethan Hawke and River Phoenix.
The Monster Squad, my favorite of the three, is an ode to the classic Universal Monsters – Dracula, Frankenstein, the Mummy, etc. If that wasn’t enough, the script really lets the pre-teens be pre-teens. The kids are smarter and, yes, more foul-mouthed than most movies allow.
A gang of misfits, all horror movie junkies, discover a magic amulet that can banish Dracula and friends into the netherworld forever. Obviously, Dracula’s not a fan and wants the amulet for himself. The film focuses on laughs more than scares, and those laughs hold up for monster fans of any age.
9) The Mist (2007)
The first movie on this list not made in the ‘80s, but Stephen King’s original novella (first published in 1980) is a clear inspiration for “the upside down”, the alternate dimension where monsters lurk in Stranger Things.
The Mist remains a favorite among Stephen King fans. A group of small town residents are trapped in their local grocery store after an earthquake spills out a strange mist full of monsters. The protagonist and his young son deal both with human threats inside the store and the terrors waiting outside before discovering what – if anything – lies beyond the mist.
I have some quibbles with this adaptation, namely because Frank Darabont (who also directed The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile) removes all the ambiguity from the original story. While I might not agree with how Darabont filled in the blanks, his choices are valid.
I still recommend tracking it down – especially the black & white version released on home video.
10) Super 8 (2011)
It’s hard not to compare Stranger Things and Super 8. They both revel in the pop culture of the late ‘70s/early ‘80s and the final months of adolescence.
Like his takes on Star Trek and Star Wars, writer/director J.J. Abrams has one foot in the past and another in the present. There’s an argument to be made that Super 8, like Stranger Things, is too nostalgic. But no one knows what makes the movies of this era tick like Abrams.
Much like The Monster Squad, Abrams lets the kids be kids in an honest way. A group of pre-teens in the late ‘70s are making a homemade monster movie and meet a misunderstood monster. Said monster is a little underwhelming (see also Stranger Things), and I wish the connection between it and the movie the kids are making was stronger. The movie’s often schmaltzy instead of scary, but it earns every second of it.
Jeremy is Customer Service Specialist at HPB Corporate