Tuesday, 31 October 2017

October Nightmares III #31: Stranger Things (2016 - ) - Yes, I've Seen F--king Stranger Things

Well, that's another October Nightmares done and dusted. I think that focusing on TV has definitely made this one the hardest yet. The problem with TV shows is that they're too sprawling and largely the same, like one of my Granddad's boring stories about what he did in the war. As per usual, I have enjoyed this month long odyssey through the world of TV  horror; it's been a decent challenge and a good opportunity to flex my writing muscle. Even if I've had less sleep than Richard Gere since he's stuck that gerbil up his arse.

I'll admit that I've put off watching Stranger Things for some time now for one simple reason: because so many people recommended it to me. I know that sounds nobbish, but I don't care quite frankly. As any scientist burnt at the stake as a heretic will know, rarely are the majority ever right about anything. "You like your horror stuff don't you, Iron? You should watch Stranger Things," or "I love Stranger Things, you should watch it, Iron, it's like Stephen King's books"; those were the innate bleatings of my colleagues last year. And yet if I recommended something like Slugs to the feminist girl, who paradoxically always has maximum cleavage on display, suddenly I'm the office weirdo.

But yes, Stranger Things is good. Very good. A lovingly crafted tribute to Eighties which goes beyond putting dayglo over everything and throwing the Ghostbusters soundtrack on. There's all the overt visual and audio Eighties dressing obviously - such as Toto's Africa, Joy Division, The Clash,  La-Z-Boy recliners, 19 inch portable box TVs, walkie-talkies, clunky tech, 'stylish' velour, gaudy yellow wallpaper, Winona Ryder, and synthesizers - but Stranger Things goes beyond the obvious set dressing and feels like something which could have actually come from the Eighties. It couldn't be more Eighties if it was a VHS about Reaganomics.

In a small Indiana town a group of pre-pubescent friends are rocked by the disappearance of one of their own, Will (Noah Schnapp). Immediately we're introduced to a group which a The Goonies style dynamic, complete with the normal everyman kid, Mike (Finn Wolfhard) and the spazzy one, Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo). The first season revolves around the boys' search for Will, a government conspiracy, and the arrival of a weird young girl, Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown), who has physic powers. Because of course she does. Though everyone raves about how 'Stephen King' the show is (seriously, what does that even mean?) it's actually more out of the Steven Spielberg playbook.

The heart of the show is the young boys' sense of secret adventure - whether its during their ten-hour Dungeons and Dragons sessions, or riding their bikes through the streets and woods. It's this cocktail of Spielbergian tropes - the indefinable sense of youth, adventure, broken homes, government conspiracies, and supernatural beings - so inextricably intertwined with the vibe of the Eighties, which gives Stranger Things its appeal. Good job the creators (the Duffer Brothers) didn't take anything from latter day Spielberg otherwise it'd have nuke-resistant fridges and Mayan temples as UFOs.

There is a Stephen King influence, naturally: the story of Stranger Things being the Stephen King story. The one in which a coming-of-age tale is intertwined with tales about battles against monsters. As is to be expected from something inspired by King, the adults are all conflicted and hiding heinous secrets - perhaps the only exception being Winona Ryder as Will's mother. There're psychic kids, evil government officials whose entire plans are being evil government officials, dodgy sheriffs, and a scumbag college kid trying to nail one of the protagonist's hot sister.

What I like about Stranger Things is how it juggles with the audience's expectations. First appearances are that the show is straight-laced when it comes to recreating Eighties' movies like E.T., The Goonies, and Gremlins. But like a Thai Bride, the show is packing more than you'd expect underneath. Little subversions like how Steve (Joe Keery) goes from cocky-jock (the Greaser bullies of 80's high school films) to the break-out comedy-sidekick to Dustin as they slay monsters together. Or there's Sheriff Hopper (David Harbour) who starts season one as the burnt-out miserable bastard cop, and slowly overcomes the grief at the death of his daughter - culminating in his bond with Eleven in season 2 and a million Sheriff Hopper dancing memes.

But the central kids here are your definite garden variety 'King Kid': i.e invariably wearing either a hat, shirt, jeans, bumbag, or any combination thereof. There's even the group's token black kid, Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin), and Smurfette in Eleven. In season 2 the gang even get their very own ginger tomboy love interest, Max (Sadie Sink), just like in IT. This is the standard Eighties' high school movie protagonist set-up - the same set-up used by Western governments.

Stranger things has a bit of John Carpenter in there too. The off-kilter alternative world of 'The Upside Down' feels very Prince of Darkness esque; the split-headed 'Demogorgon', and the massive multilimbed shadow monster known as 'The Mind Flayer', are somewhere between Carpenter and Lovecraft as all powerful entities which could somehow be destroyed by twelve-year-olds.

The above villains appear in season one and two respectively, which given each season their own distinct flavour; though I felt as though the general arc across the two was largely the same. It's a standard mystery interspersed with metaphors for burgeoning adolescence, racism, and being an outsider. Unfortunately, whilst this arc (particularly with Eleven) was well explored in the first season, it was not so much in the second season. What started to rub me up the wrong way, was how everything started to revolve around Eleven: she's tortured by government scientists and gains psychic powers, it's a bit Mary Sue as it is. After awhile it was like when a family sitcom shifts tone and does an episode about the daughter's bulimia, and you just can't switch off fast enough.

One episode of season 2, for example, saw Eleven going to the big city and becoming involved with some punks with Cyndi Lauper hairdos. The standard Eighties metaphor for kids from the wrong side of the tracks. A large portion of season 2 was either retreading the previous season, or dealing with the immediate fallout of the previous season; a downward trajectory known as 'Predator 2 syndrome'.

Stranger Things works best when it's banking on the sort of small-town nostalgia specialised by Stephen King, and character based plotting from Speilberg. Basically Stranger Things is Trump's 'Make America Great Again' slogan with kids and shadow demons from other dimensions. Maybe that's why we need the wall.

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