Stranger Things is great fantasy-adventure drama, emerging from 2016 as one of the true TV delights of the year. What makes it even better is its celebration of, and homage to, many popular Hollywood movies of the 1980s.
The much-hyped Stranger Things is a treasure trove of 1980s movie references. For fans of Hollywood’s output during the decade, every episode offers pieces of nostalgia that gleefully reminisce about an era that gave us indelible audience favourites like Spielberg’s E.T., Donner’s The Goonies and Reiner’s Stand By Me.
The Duffer Brothers who created the series admit to being inspired by the movies they grew up watching (and loving). They have said in interview that they wanted to recreate the themes, motivations and conflicts that made these eighties movies so appealing. Certainly, one of the strengths of Stranger Things is how it captures that feeling of ordinariness suddenly being faced with otherworldliness; reality and fantasy colliding in a very recognisable environment (like a small town in America).
So many of the films that Stranger Things pays homage to came from the 1980s and often featured children as their principle characters. From The Goonies to The Lost Boys by way of A Nightmare on Elm Street, Poltergeist and Firestarter, the Duffer Brothers’ supernatural tale evokes the sensibilities of an era when American cinema found a niche putting kids up against powerful foe.Stranger Things transcended its structurally and thematically derivative nature in much the same way Scream revitalised slasher film convention despite systemically showcasing every single cliché. It’s that postmodern acknowledgment of tropes and expectation that give the audience a sense of belonging; as if we know this fictionalised world as well as our own.
It can backfire without the smarts to create characters we care about, motivations that make sense, story arcs that emotionally resonate throughout their development, and the entertainment value of humour, suspense and action. Triumphantly, Stranger Things ticks all the boxes.
It does so without throwing its various 1980s movie homages at you like a Rocky Balboa punch to the face. Some are more subtle than others meaning many have completely missed some brilliantly incorporated nods to the Duffer Brothers’ favourite films. There’s a drinking game in this, I know it!
In my top 10 1980s movie references in Netflix’s Stranger Things I highlight some of my favourite pieces of homage throughout season one, noting some of the more obvious nods to eighties’ classics as well as the TV thriller’s more subtle moments.
A few subtle 1980s movie references in Netflix’s Stranger Things
Before we get into my favourite 1980s movie references in Stranger Things, here’s some of the others I liked throughout season one. First off is a small nod to Ghostbusters 2 when we see Jonathan Byers processing his photographs in a dark room to reveal what could be a monster from another world. It’s something that worked wonderfully well in Richard Donner’s chilling The Omen from 1976 (when daggers of distortion on the image made macabre reference to the subject’s impending death) but it’s 1980s link comes in the form of Ghostbusters 2 when Ray develops his photos of the Vigo painting only for them to reveal and river of slime and then set on fire.
Elsewhere, when Lucas takes it upon himself to save his best friend Will by himself after beginning to distrust Eleven’s motives, his arrangement of homemade monster-killing equipment and the donning of a bandana reminded me of The Lost Boys.
There’s also a couple of nods to The Goonies. Thematically, we have children who save the day based on their faith in friendship but we also have Dustin Henderson’s search for chocolate pudding being reminiscent of Chunk’s discovery of ice cream in Donner’s fantasy adventure. Both “food searches” indirectly lead to trouble.
We also see Brian De Palma’s Body Double get an homage courtesy of Jonathan Byer’s voyeuristic pursuit of love interest Nancy, his camera and its telephoto lens mimicking the film’s poster. Speaking of poster, we get obvious nods to The Evil Dead and The Thing courtesy of their promotional artwork adorning bedroom walls, while John Hughes’ The Breakfast Club becomes apparent when the children are being chased around the school corridors similar to the detention teens trying to avoid Mr Vernon.
The Aliens Connection
Aliens (as well as 1979’s Alien) also provides plenty of inspiration for sequences, shot composition, special effects and plot development in Stranger Things. In addition to the scene when the scientist tries to escape the monster and finds himself in an elevator that mimics the one Ripley uses to enter and exit the atmosphere processing station in order to save Newt in Aliens (which makes my list at number 10), we have many subtle and not-so subtle moments of homage.
From the images you can see above, I immediately thought of Brett meeting his maker in Alien (that upwards gaze before the inevitable) when the lab’s scientist gets a close encounter. We also have subtle connections such as the “goo” left behind by the monster/alien, scenes that utilise harsh torchlight in a dark, misty environment (witnessed in both Alien and Aliens), and the imprisonment of child victims in secreted restraints. There’s also the not-so subtle connection concerning monster/alien eggs and the discovery of them.
A selection of the best 1980s movie references in Stranger Things…
10. Aliens (Cameron, 1986)
If Stranger Things wanted to get my attention with its 1980s movie references then it makes a perfect first impression. The series’ opening scene pays homage to Ripley’s escape from the alien queen in James Cameron’s Aliens. Not only does the research institute’s elevator mimic the one used in Cameron’s 1986 action-horror classic, the Duffer Brothers employ similar framing and editing techniques to squeeze out as much tension as they can. The pay-off differs between the TV drama and the film it references but the scene is a wonderfully subtle introduction to Stranger Things’ nostalgic sensibilities.
9. Back To The Future (Zemeckis, 1985)
The Dead Kid
A blink-and-you’ll-miss moment occurs when local law enforcement fishes Will Byers’ supposed dead body from the quarry. The water from which he is found has soaked his clothes making his coat appear redder than it was when dry. With his jeans and red coat, Will’s body looks reminiscent of Marty McFly in Back To The Future. It’s an eerie scene given the sobering revelation, perhaps made more tragic because the resemblance is to the mistakenly identified “life preserver” that Marty wears in the film.
8. National Lampoon’s Vacation (Ramis, 1983)
”This Is Crazy”
A delightfully subtle reference occurs in the brilliant final episode of Stranger Things’ season 1 when nice-guy jock Steven arrives just in time for monster hunting with Nancy and Jonathan. The sight of some serious supernatural events prompts him to utter: “This is crazy, this is crazy, this is crazy.” It’s the exact line Clark W. Griswold says when he’s contemplating a naked midnight swim with Christie Brinkley in National Lampoon’s Vacation. It’s a clever homage because the scenes are very different but the line works for comedic purposes in both instances.
7. E.T. (Spielberg, 1982)
Wigs and Daytime TV
There are many fun 1980s movie references in Netflix’s Stranger Things and E.T. is the film that provides most of the inspiration. The kids’ bicycles make an early appearance and are a mainstay of the entire series, for example. A couple of subtle instances stood out for me – Eleven’s disguise with the blonde wig and the curious child’s familiarisation of the world around her (and perhaps the “normal” life she has missed out on) through the things she finds around the family home and daytime TV is material excised from Steven Spielberg’s film also. Crucially, the Duffer Brothers ensure these references have a place in the narrative; they don’t feel shoehorned in just to add another nostalgic wink to the film they obviously hold dear.
6. A Nightmare On Elm Street (Craven, 1984)
They’re Coming Through The Goddamn Walls
A not-so subtle reference to Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street appears in the form of the alternate dimension’s bloodthirsty creatures semi-invading our world through porous walls, bending bricks and mortar like Freddy Krueger antagonising teenagers from the dream world in the 1984 horror classic.
5. Firestarter (Lester, 1984)
Mark L. Lester’s cult favourite Firestarter starring a young Drew Barrymore makes itself known in a number of ways in Stranger Things. Thematically, both the film and TV series share a young, female protagonist with telekinetic powers and a mysterious government agency tracking them in order to harness their potential as, perhaps, a military weapon. There’s also a more obvious nod between TV series and film when both young girls are seen in interrogation rooms with monitoring equipment attached to their heads.
4. Poltergeist (Hooper, 1982)
The idea of tying a piece of rope to the person tasked with leaving our world and entering another is perfect for developing tension courtesy of the unknown. A physical connection that can be ambiguously manipulated and, perhaps, tragically broken. Stranger Things utilises this idea, borrowing it from Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist. It concerns those trying to save a young girl who has been abducted into an alternate dimension. They use rope, held at one end by those in the real world and tied to the intrepid explorer of the alternate dimension. This is a more subtle reference to Poltergeist. It is more obviously celebrated when Will Byers is given tickets to see the film in the cinema. When his mother later hears her son calling from the alternate dimension, it reminds of Carol-Anne in Poltergeist talking through the television in Hooper’s excellent ghost story.
3. Stand By Me (Reiner, 1986)
Five Go Adventuring
As our pre-teen friends try to solve the mystery of Eleven and find their friend, they head out along the train tracks. It’s an obvious reference to Rob Reiner’s film adaptation of Stephen King’s novella The Body, but, like the TV drama’s other film references, plays a tangible part in their story, building relationships and setting up conflicts courtesy of that well-worn storytelling technique: the physical and metaphorical “journey”.
2. A Nightmare On Elm Street (Craven, 1984)
Definitely the best “material grab” from Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street appears in Stranger Things’ absorbing final episode in which Nancy and Jonathan booby-trap the Byers’ home intending to bring the creature out of the “Upside Down” and kill it in the real world. Eagle-eyed viewers will note the protagonists in the TV drama and the film are both called Nancy but some viewers may have missed the monster-killing technique referenced in Stranger Things’ finale. In order to kill Freddy Krueger, it is decided that the best way to do so is to take him out of the dream world in which he is all-powerful and kill him in the real world. The Duffer Brothers make use of this idea as well as the booby trap preparation in their long-format drama. It makes for a thrilling climax.
1. E.T. (Spielberg, 1982)
E.T. is referenced throughout Stranger Things. If there’s one film the TV drama draws most of its inspiration from, it is Steven Spielberg’s 1982 fantasy adventure. Whether the Duffer Brothers are extracting E.T.’s themes, its conflicts or its individual scenes, Spielberg’s tale of children befriending a powerful supernatural force and helping it find a resolution to that which threatens it, is a defining quality of the series. And certainly one of the best moments, and Stranger Things’ most obvious nod to E.T., is when the children are trying to escape the clutches of the mysterious government agents and El uses her psychokinetic powers to lift a vehicle into the air to clear a safe path for the children and their bicycles.
Over to you: what were your fave 1980s movie references in Stranger Things?