Imagine that Stephen King, Steven Spielberg, John Carpenter, and Ridley Scott had a greasy, coke-fueled, totally gay 80s orgy. Further imagine that the people cheering them on and occasionally pitching in, because who likes to be left out, were Richard Donner, Joe Dante, Wes Craven, and Tobe Hooper. Okay, please stop imagining that right now because it’s fucking disgusting.
But let’s pretend that one of those gentlemen somehow became pregnant from that little deviance. You know, in his man-uterus. And let’s say he was crazy enough to carry that bastard to term and deliver it. Probably in the back room of an ether-addled veterinarian who owed Spielberg a favor and could keep quiet.
And the baby was perfect. Healthy, gorgeous, smart, and adorably weird.
That baby is Stranger Things.
Netflix’s new series, which dropped in its entirety July 16th, is an amazing retro mash-up love letter to the adventure, horror, and sci-fi classics of the 80s. For anyone who grew up watching stuff like Alien, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Firestarter, The Goonies, E.T., The Thing, Monster Squad, Explorers, A Nightmare On Elm Street, and Stand by Me, Stranger Things is a warm, comfortable homecoming. For anyone who missed those, either by choice or by birth, this thing will make you homesick for something you never knew.
Even though it’s passionately cobbled together from dozens of late 70s, early 80s sources, Stranger Things has a fantastic flair all its own. That can probably be attributed to creators Matt and Ross Duffer’s deep affection for and knowledge of the original material. Toss in their own righteous creativity and the sheer genius of their casting choices, and you’ve got a series that’s both an incredible homage and a brilliant achievement all on its own.
And the rest of Hollywood needs to pay attention, because Stranger Things just took a dump on their Altar of the Do Over.
Hollywood seems to be gripped with a sickness these days, one that’s causing it to vomit out remake after remake. A lot of people bemoan the lack of creativity and general shittiness of most of these uninspired flicks and I’m definitely one of them. But I also realize something many folks don’t seem to consider: Hollywood has always done remakes. We may be suffering through an unusual glut of lazy, nowhere-near-as-good-as-the-originals, but this isn’t a new thing.
D.W. Griffith is widely known as the “Inventor of Hollywood.” As in, before him, Tinseltown and its tendencies didn’t even exist. In 1914 he made a silent drama called The Battle of the Sexes. In 1928, he remade it, with the same title, as a comedy-drama. That’s right. The guy credited with creating Hollywood, of whom Orson Welles said “No town, no industry, no profession, no art form owes so much to a single man,” remade one of his own films.
Since then, there have been thousands of remakes. And that’s not counting TV shows that were tuned into movies or vice versa. So while Hollywood appears to be gripped by a particularly virulent bout of this disease, it’s actually a congenital affliction.
Sometimes it’s so awful all you can do is turn away in disgust and hope you’ll be able to eat later that day. Like when the mostly talented Gus Van Sant remade crazy, sick, but genius Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. Fucking ouch. No one wanted to see that. Especially considering it was a nearly shot-for-shot do over with almost exactly the same script.
And the 2006 remake of The Wicker Man. Holy shit. It’s not easy to completely misunderstand everything about the movie you’re redoing but Neil LaBute did it with aplomb. It’s like watching one train wreck fuck another train wreck. The second train wreck, as always, is Nicolas Cage.
And then there are the remakes that outshine the originals, so much so that people often forget they’re remakes because they become the icon. 1978s Invasion of the Body Snatchers is one. So is Scorsese’s 1991 Cape Fear, mainly because everyone was pretty certain Robert De Niro was actually a fucking psychopath. Brian De Palma’s Scarface in 1983. Cronenberg’s The Fly. And, my personal favorite of all time, John Carpenter’s The Thing.
Part of the reason these remakes succeed is due to their willingness to deviate from their predecessors in order to improve upon them. If something sucked in the original, it got left out. If the remaker thought a scene could be done differently to make it better, they did it. The best of these movies took the spirit of the old version and made it their own.
That’s what Stranger Things does, except it goes a step further. It essentially creates new material based on old and weaves it through the series so it has the flavor of both past and present. Since it’s not a remake, even loosely, it’s its own creature. It’s a new story, with new characters, and a singular creativity. But the tone and feel are carefully designed to echo themes from film’s past.
Some may say those themes are flat-out stolen; ripped wholesale from the movies they’re paying homage to. There’s truth to that but let’s not kid ourselves. There are only a few great ideas out there and they’ve all been done. Everything else is just riffing on those and at least Stranger Things is honest and affectionate. When Eleven is left alone at Mike’s house and wanders around discovering all the things she’s never known, that’s fucking E.T. and we all know it. Part of us is taken back to seeing that movie as a child and all the feelings it unleashed watching that gnarled little turd-demon stagger drunk around a suburban home. But another part of us understands this is going in a different direction and that scene, loving throwback that it was, will lead us somewhere new.
When the faceless monster in the upside down tries to push its way through walls into our world, its form is outlined as the walls stretched out. We all realize that was done in A Nightmare on Elm Street. And it makes us remember just how unsettling and freaky that was when we saw it the first time. But this is a wholly different situation and, despite whatever feelings pop up based on Nightmare, they combine with our fresh sense of dread and horror because this is a unique experience.
Stranger Things doesn’t add minor innovations to a single previous source in order to get to the same essential premise. It combines the amazing ideas of a dozen different movies and novels and spins them all together to create a perfect Frankenstein. Stitched together from all different pieces but its own awesome monster in the end.
The second major reason for the success of a remake is casting. Would Body Snatchers have worked without Donald Sutherland? Would The Fly have been as gripping and scary without Jeff Goldblum’s weird, awkward performance? The Maltese Falcon without Bogart? Come on. No way.
The creators of Stranger Things surely realized this because they put together a group of actors that were jaw-droppingly marvelous.
First and foremost, the kids. Jesus. These kids go together like hippies and stink; like pretzels and beer; like frat boys and Fireball. They fucking click, is what I’m saying. I don’t know how the Duffer brothers found them, or what sorcery they used, but these kids are pure magic. They’re the kind of magic that would make Criss Angel shit David Blaine’s pants.
Charlie Heaton as Jonathan Byers is just right as the awkward big brother and town weirdo. He seems to have no friends; just a loner out there looking for his little bro. Every 80s flick has a guy wandering around in his scruffy Army jacket and beat-up boots. He’s a mainstay, as is his out-of-reach, preppy love interest from the correct side of the tracks. You know, the chick from a different world who doesn’t see him for who he is but she’ll come around eventually. Natalia Dyer has that part locked down. She eagerly cradles her new friends and popularity with a shyness that’s perfect confused teenager.
Winona Ryder nails the role of Joyce Byers. She plays the crazed-by-loss mother dead on. This part is often done garishly, with the mom so deranged and shrill that it becomes grating and unwatchable. But Ryder toes the line perfectly. Her grief is obviously chewing her up and she’s definitely unbalanced, but it’s a masterful piece of acting, exactly as subtle and over the top as it needs to be.
What can you say about Millie Bobby Brown as Eleven that hasn’t been said? She’s extraordinary, one of those child actors that just blows us away with her skill. She swings gloriously between confused, scared waif and steely-eyed bad ass. But she maintains her enigmatic core which is central to the whole series. She’s both curious and a curiosity; protector and victim; bashful yet brutal.
David Harbour is outstanding as the police chief who crawls out of the bottle he’s investigating only to get caught between his manly logic and Joyce’s increasing hysterics. Matthew Modine as the king-daddy of Fuck Nature Labs is just as silkily evil as you could hope for.
All the actors come together in the exact same way the Duffer brothers’ creative influences do: consummately. They’re all prodigiously talented individuals but they combine into an astonishing whole with no jagged edges or rough corners.
The final thing that ties all this together is the music. Even if audiences haven’t seen the films that influenced this series, surely everyone has seen some 80s movies. Doesn’t even have to be horror or sci-fi, just any movie from the 80s. Were there synthesizers on the soundtrack? Of course there were. And Stranger Things wouldn’t work half as well as it does if those very same synthesizers weren’t such a big part of it.
Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein have been making strange electronic music with their band Survive for several years. They were the perfect choice to craft the sound of Stranger Things and I don’t see how it could have been better. From the retro opening credits, with digital effects making them look like old, scratchy celluloid, through every dark, creepy scene in the series, that ominous, ethereal sound molds the impeccable atmosphere.
The music completes the perfection. The way the story is told, the way it’s shot, the way the actors perform, and, finally, the soundtrack, all combine to make this a stunning masterpiece.
Stranger Things has obviously proved it’s possible to make something totally wonderful and new out of great old ideas while still paying earnest, loving homage to them. It’s not necessary to do a remake every. Single. Goddamn time. Just steal the fucking ideas already. But do it reverently. Hear what I’m saying, Hollywood? Respect. Don’t just smash and grab. Handle them with the dignity they deserve. And use ideas that delight you, ideas that you adore. It has to be something that’s important to you or you won’t understand it well enough to do it justice. Trust yourself. But rely on others.
And please, please don’t remake Big Trouble in Little China.
All images are screen grabs from Netflix