If you’re a person who is alive and has Netflix, you have undoubtedly watched Stranger Things, the addictive horror-sci-fi-family-drama-genre-mish-mash that’s sweeping the nation (and if you haven’t, holy cannoli, stop reading this article and go watch all eight episodes right now, because man is it good). Now that it’s over, you’re probably in a bit of a funk. “What else is out there that will fill this Stranger Things-sized hole in my heart?” you’re shouting at your device. Luckily, the show itself is influenced by many wonderful films from the 1980s, and they just might be what you’re looking for.
The Duffer Brothers, creators of Stranger Things, owe a lot to John Carpenter, from the pulsating synth score to the horrifying genre imagery tinged with a touch of black humor. I’d like to start with a lesser-known Carpenter film, the relatively gentle Jeff Bridges-starring Starman. It’s about an alien who comes to earth with the purpose of establishing first contact, but falls in love and experiences a rush of complex human emotions along the way. Besides the borrowing of specific moments (the dead deer, for example), Stranger Things feels, with its development of Eleven and Mike, like a transposition of the growing romance between a supernatural entity and a normal human. But, you know, for kids.
If you’re going to write about a group of boys going on a dark and perilous adventure, you owe a lot to The Goonies. While the dynamics in Stranger Things are arguably more complex, and the dangers they face more terrifying, the DNA of Goonies is still all over the Netflix series. Think of it this way — if Stranger Things is a balanced, gourmet meal at a fancy restaurant, The Goonies is the Hostess Cupcake you gleefully inhale when your parents aren’t looking.
When I see Joyce communicating to the beyond with Christmas lights, letters on the wall, and malevolent spirits in the wall, it feels an awful lot like the grown up version of Carol Anne from Poltergeist interacting with spirits through the TV and proclaiming, “They’re here.” Tobe Hooper’s domestic horror film feels kindred to Stranger Things, particularly in its genuine exploration of a dysfunctional family dynamic through the lens of genuinely terrifying scare sequences. There is one thing Poltergeist has that Stranger Things does not, however, and that’s a dang clown. Watch at your own risk.
E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
In the scene when Mike shows Eleven some of the pleasures of a 1980s middle-class suburban lifestyle, I literally said out loud to myself, “That’s some E.T. nonsense!” There are plenty of subtler parallels one can draw from Stranger Things to Steven Spielberg’s family sci-fi classic, but this particular scene is so close to Elliott giving the creature Reese’s Pieces that it provoked a shout from me. The Duffer Brothers owe a lot to Spielberg; in this particular film, it’s the alternation between a friendship with a patently unusual figure and a frightening medical government conspiracy. Both works, then, explore the pains and pleasures of childhood through a genre lens.
If this film is good enough for the characters in Stranger Things to hang up a poster on their wall, then it’s good enough for you to watch, yeah? Another masterpiece from Carpenter, this study in paranoia is arguably more nihilistic and grotesque than the often-hopeful Stranger Things, but it’s also similarly stylistically crafted. Both works play with silences and quiet moments as purveyors of dread before big, scary pops. Both works offer human conflicts that are just as nerve-jarring as the genre elements. And, frankly, we would watch a movie of Kurt Russell’s MacReady getting a beer with David Harbour’s Hopper any day of the week.
Stand By Me
This film checks off two boxes in the “similar to Stranger Things checklist” — it’s an adaptation of Stephen King, whose horror-through-family-unit stories practically pulsate through the foundation of Stranger Things; and it’s another predecessor in the “young boys go on a dark and perilous adventure” genre that Stranger Things owes so much to. Like Stranger Things, Stand By Me feels genuinely authentic and dangerous, with its R-rating ensuring plenty of swears and no bars held regarding the dead body the kids are eager to find (which, now that I think about it, is pretty similar to the kids of Stranger Things trying to find Will).
The Evil Dead
Another film which has a poster prominently displayed in Stranger Things, Sam Raimi’s low-budget masterpiece is the zippy, restless younger cousin to the more patient, more restrained Stranger Things. Both works play with the scary unknown of the dark and both works have an intensely terrifying set piece set in the woods. Plus, both works are interested in exploring the fragilities of friendship at their emotional core; namely, what happens to them when they’re tested in increasingly horrible ways. The main difference, then, comes from style; where the Duffer Brothers might shoot in a slow, roving tracking shot, Raimi would fling the camera across the space and crash right into the subject.
My final entry in the “young boys going on a dark and perilous adventure” genre, the criminally underrated Explorers features a group of kids who love science so much that they actually craft a microchip-powered spaceship and contact aliens, drawing the attention of nefarious government agents. I mean, at this point, the similarities to Stranger Things are numerous and self-explanatory, so I’ll just say this: If your favorite moments in Stranger Things are the boys geeking out over AV Club equipment, you will absolutely adore Explorers.
Which ‘80s movie sounds the most intriguing to you? What movies or other works does Stranger Things remind you of? Give me a follow on Twitter, but to make it seem really cool and nostalgic, have this playing w