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Netflix’s frightening ‘Stranger Things’ comforts even as it spooks

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If you don’t know Mike and El yet, you should.
Smith Galtney

Strange things have been happening since I started watching Stranger Things. My posts about the show have generated unusual responses. Instead of the average, non-committal commentary (“great show”), friends immediately declare, “I’m watching it, like, right now!” Middle-aged dads, who somehow found time to binge the show in one weekend, confide, “I have not been scared like this since summer camp.” Weirder still, my trainer and I are both fans. He digs superheroes. I like House of Cards. Peculiar.

On July 11, four days before Stranger Things debuted on Netflix, Stephen King tweeted, “My only question about [the show] is whether or not it will be popular enough to crash their servers.” While the data listed above is admittedly informal, I’m concluding that, indeed, everybody’s tuning in. Netflix failure is imminent.

In terms of nailing Stranger Things’ appeal, I defer to my friend John Sellers: “Anyone who loves E.T., Stand by Me, The Goonies, Freaks and Geeks, Close Encounters, Super 8, It, Cloak & Dagger, Explorers and The Wizard (with a side of It Follows, The Last Starfighter, Christine, Alien and Poltergeist) AND who isn’t lame needs to binge this amazingly satisfying 8-hour sci-fi ‘movie’ right now.” It’s a Kingian/Spielbergian fantasia on ’80s themes: small towns and big imaginations, unexplained phenomena in broken homes, how those nerds on the banana-seat bikes are the real heroes.

Sure, there are monsters in the woods.

Set in rural Indiana in 1983, Stranger Things mashes up more Reagan-era formula than you could shake a 13-sided die at. There’s a glowing tool shed, an alien abduction, a traumatized tween with diabolical powers, a struggling single mother and her latchkey children. In an era devoid of helicopter parenting and smartphones, it’s pretty easy to rack up some tension. At one point, Winona Ryder—superb as the mom of a missing boy—literally gets tied to the phone while waiting for it to ring.

There’s a monster or three lurking in them-there woods, but taking a cue from the Spielberg School of Less Is More, showrunners (and twin brothers) Matt and Ross Duffer scared the pants off my middle-aged ass multiple times with quick glimpses and faraway figures. They’re also master fetishists. The title sequence is pure ’80s-baby ecstasy, with its retro-synth score (h/t John Carpenter and Tangerine Dream) and a font lifted straight from the covers of Stephen King novels. Back in the day, man, we stared at those covers long before we were old enough to read the books. That font is magic.

Stranger Things is no mere nostalgia trip. Thanks to its rich cast of characters, it feels as timeless as the movies that inspired it. But the young ’uns won’t have as much fun with the details. The Trapper Keepers. The game of Upwords on the shelf. A set of striped sheets I swear I slept in at some point. I could gripe over the implausibility of a small-town American teenager already loving Joy Division in 1983, or why one episode ends with The Bangles’ “Hazy Shade of Winter,” which didn’t come out till ’87. But in a show that delightfully suspends many a disbelief, some historical license is okay.

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