Ponty’s Pen: Stranger Things Series Review

We’re pro-spooky stuff here at The Portly Politico, and perhaps the greatest example of syncretic spookiness is the Netflix series Stranger Things, an amalgamation of 1980s nostalgia, John Carpenter, Stephen King, and every other significant sci-fi horror franchise of that glorious decade (and beyond).

Talk about a lightning-in-a-bottle cultural phenomenon.  The series is the kind that is profoundly a product of the age of streaming, yet it hearkens back to the horror miniseries of the 1980s and 1990s—rich, multi-episode arcs; tight story construction; and satisfying pay-offs that reward loyal viewing.  I also appreciate that the show doesn’t overstay its welcome with bloated seasons.  The Duffer Brothers tell the story they want to tell without stretching their material thin.

Ponty sent me this epic review of the first four seasons of the show (the fifth and, it seems, final season is coming soon), and it’s surely his reviewing magnum opus.  Audre Myers wrote her own review of the series last year, which overlaps somewhat with Ponty’s, but they both bring different insights into the show.

I don’t have much left to add that Ponty hasn’t said better.  With that, here is Ponty’s series review of Stranger Things:

‘The Monster Mash. He did the Monster Mash. He did the Mash.’ Do you know, I quite like that song. Ever since I decided to write this review, that song has been stuck in my head. In its own repetitive, tacky way, it’s one of those tunes that stick, not in a clawing, screaming, please-make-it-stop kind a way but in a head nod, short shuffle way. And it became lodged after watching the first four seasons of Stranger Things, which, to all intents and purposes, is a monster mash. It has influences from everywhere. The Duffer Brothers, who created this series, really love their horror and sci-fi horror. I’d hazard a guess that they are gamers too. From Stephen King and Spielberg, the Alien franchise, the Silent Hill game series, A Quiet Place, Poltergeist, this series highlights the Duffer Brothers’ love of the classics, moulding together a pretty spectacular series. For me, this is quite an achievement. As you know, I despise genre mash ups because the creators usually, and painfully, separate so many aspects that the whole thing becomes confused and muddled. But not in this case. This is what happens when a mash is done expertly. I bought this for Tina as a Christmas present (thanks to the recommendation of Audre) and it’s a testament to how well this series was put together that it took just over a week for us to go through the entirety of series 1-4. My only gripe is that I wish Audre had mentioned it towards the back end of this year and not last. We’re going to have to wait that long for the next series to come out on DVD so we can either eagerly await its release on hard copy or we can bite the bullet and buy it on Netflix. Whichever option we go with, the denoument of series 4 has us itching to see the next part, what I understand is the fifth and final instalment.

What starts with the disappearance of a young boy quickly develops into a mystery, where the world as we know it is mirrored by the world that we don’t. Stranger Things describes it as the upside down world; I describe it as Silent Hill because it shares many aspects. The ash rising and falling like snow in a disjointed reality, one that looks like ours but which is changed. Many Silent Hill fans will know this and if the Duffers have never played the games, this is one weird and eerie coincidence. Underneath is the trailer for the classic PS2 game, Silent Hill 2, remade for the PS5. This will give you a better idea of what I mean regarding the falling ash and the horrors of what Stranger Things calls the upside down world. The only difference is that Stranger Things made their alternate reality perennially night. I don’t think it needed that, to be honest. Silent Hill encapsulates the illusion without being too on the nose and it remains terrifying. Unheimlich, as Tina describes it. Familiar but different enough to be unsettling.

The kids are the stars of the show in Stranger Things, though I was glad that it wasn’t a complete separation. Usually, in these types of film, it’s either the adults who fight and win or the children, never both together, so it was good to see stories surrounding two generations, each fighting for a similar cause. Our focus, in this series, is on four high school kids – Mike Wheeler (Finn Wolfhard), Lucas Sinclair (Caleb McLaughlin), Dustin Henderson (Gaten Matarazzo) and Will Byers (Noah Schnapp). They’re social outcasts at school, because they’re science geeks and D&D obsessives, which makes them ripe for bullies. But they are loyal to a fault and when Will goes missing, they join the search along with the rest of the town. As they enter the woods, they find not their friend but a strange girl with a shaven head and Mike, against all protestations from Lucas, takes her back to his house, hiding her away in the basement until they can find out more about her. What they do find is a connection between this mysterious young girl – named Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) because of the number on her arm – and their missing friend.

As it turns out, Eleven escaped from a government facility and is being pursued by agents and scientists, while Mike and his friends continue to learn more about her, including the powers she has harnessed. As the mystery unfolds piece by piece, we find out that Eleven accidentally opened a crack to another world, similar to theirs but darker and containing otherworldy creatures, and that world is seeping slowly into their reality. We also discover that the upside down is where Will has been taken and it becomes a race against time to retrieve the boy whilst also closing down that portal for good. But like all these battles against insurmountable odds, it never quite works out the way they planned.

The series is set in the 1980s but that’s not immediately obvious, certainly not in the first series; as we move through the second and to the fourth, it is more colourful, the soundtrack becomes more conspicuous and the hairstyles whackier. Those who have watched it might find it odd for me to say that – after all, you can’t get past how Carpenter-esque the opening theme to the show is – but it’s true in many ways. I guess with the disappearance of Will and the mystery of Eleven, the creators were keen on creating an introduction which pitched you right into the dark, building an atmosphere of such tension that your focus would inevitably be on the characters and their journey. And that, for me, was the best way to do it.

Though we are giving glimpses into this mysterious world, we are also given time to get to know our players. The first series is the pre-puberty stage for our four friends so we’re not thrown into tantrums or distraction until they grow up a little and discover girls. For now, it’s all about growing up with them and despite their love of role play, they’re surprisingly mature. They fight with each other, sure, they’re kids, but when push comes to shove, they have each other’s backs. Mike doesn’t lead the group but comes under more scrutiny than the other three, mainly because of his decision to shelter Eleven, a commitment that evolves into something else as the series progresses. Lucas is the most volatile of the group, Will the most passive and Dustin is just a bundle of fun. They’re all different in their own ways but find common ground in games and science and when their world becomes unsettled, they work together to find their friend and unravel the mysteries facing them.

The real star of the show, for me, is Eleven. This young girl has been sheltered in a laboratory atmosphere from birth so when faced with the real world and real people, she has no idea how to interact. She doesn’t speak much and it takes a lot of work and effort from Mike to coax her into trusting him and, by extension, other people. The creators of this show must have looked long and hard to find a young actress to play this role. She had to be precocious but have all the innocence that comes with being sheltered. She has a superb emotional range, stunted and bewildered when Mike finds her, frightened and stricken in the flashbacks of her unusual upbringing. Millie Brown couldn’t have been a better choice.

As for the adults in this tale, well, one of the reasons I was deterred from this excellent show in the first place was the top billing of Winona Ryder. I’ve watched her, reluctantly, in films over the last few decades and there hasn’t been a single performance in which I could say she has been good, not even average. With only 2 looks in her repertoire – gormless innocence or venomous outrage – and a litany of expletives, the idea of watching an entire series or 4 with this actress seemed like a tall order. But she totally blew us away, with a performance that was entirely un-Winona. In fact, Tina and I, when referring to her presentation, as the desperate mother of the missing Will, name her by her character, Joyce Byers, rather than her real name. Hats off to her, she really knocked this character off the park. As a single mother of two, you can see she works hard for her kids, even though she’s struggling, and when her youngest disappears, she becomes more unsettled, wretchedly clinging on to anything, no matter how fantastic, in the hope of finding her boy. In one scene, an echo of Poltergeist, she finds she can talk to Will through the lights in her house. I love the relief on her face, in her entire body, when she asks Will if he’s there and the Christmas lights illuminate.

She is eventually aided in the search for her son by the town sheriff, Jim Hopper (David Harbour), a former city cop bored leading a force in a small town where little happens. To be fair, he starts looking for Will when it’s evident he has disappeared but it takes a while for him to believe that her son is somewhere not in this reality. Hopper is a great character. Half the time, he appears quite apathetic, cigarette constantly hanging from his mouth, more happy to exchange quips with his team and secretary than engage in any serious police work. On other occasions, he can appear quite short and one not to suffer fools. But he grows and develops and the more he learns about the upside down and the struggles facing Hawkins, the small town he has been entrusted with, he begins to forge relationships with those he cast aside and help them find what they’re looking for. He’s a gently spoken man, for such a big bloke, and has a preference for the direct route. He also has an uncanny resemblance to Steven Ogg (Trevor from GTA5, Simon in The Walking Dead) and like Ogg’s more famous characters, is utterly engaging.

While the main focus in the first series falls on Mike and his friends, the mystery of Eleven and Joyce and Hopper’s search for Will, we also follow Mike’s sibling, Nancy (Natalia Dyer), as she traverses the early stages of sexual desire and Will’s older brother, Jonathan (Charlie Heaton), withdrawn and suffering from his brother’s disappearance and his attraction to Nancy.

I’m a fan of the kids science teacher, Mr Clarke (Randy Havens), who makes science fun. I tell you, if I’d had a teacher like him when I was at school, I’d have paid more attention. I also enjoyed Matthew Modine’s performance as Dr Martin Brenner or Papa, as he made his subjects call him. After a ton of pretty boy roles in the 80s and 90s, it was good to see him play a sinister role.

The visual and creature effects were ace and though the monsters from the upside down world looked very similar to the creatures in A Quiet Place – no face to speak of but heads that open up – they were still terrifying and engaging. I particularly enjoyed the nod to A Nightmare on Elm Street, where Joyce observes with horror, one of the monsters pushing through the wall in her living room (you can see that at the end of the clip I attached above, where Joyce is talking to Will).

As the series moves forward, we are introduced to new characters. My favourite of the newbies is Eddie Munson, a D&D aficionado and guitarist who turns up in series 4, and who flat out has the coolest moment in the entire series, where he plays Metallica’s “Master of Puppets” as a distraction technique.

Billy and Max, half brother and sister, show up in the second series. Both are dysfunctional and appear to despise each other. Billy is lusted over by the mothers because of his muscles but it’s the hair you notice first. The guy looks like he’s walked out of a Helloween video shoot. Long, permed blonde hair, daft moustache, cigarette constantly hanging from his mouth. That’s another thing about this series. Loads of people smoke. I love it. Many channels have become so politically correct that they won’t even show someone smoking in a time when they would have lit up so it was refreshing to see. Max is offbeat, happy on her own with her skateboard but it’s not long before she’s drawn into the story, her friendship with Lucas bringing her into the mould.

They even bring in Samwise Gangi (Sean Astin) as a love interest to Joyce and Paul Reiser as one of the lab scientists, the former bringing in the fun and the latter offering further interest to the story.

As the series evolves, so do the characters, new challenges arising as they age, more surprises thrown into the mix. I couldn’t express more how much we’re looking forward to the final series. In the meantime, I think yet another viewing might be on the menu.

One last thing and I then I really am done. This is more for Audre than anyone else. I mentioned the theme for Stranger Things being Carpenter-esque; I’ll elaborate. Listen to this title sequence and then the theme Carpenter wrote for The Thing:

Different in sound but they do have a very similar percussive element, a heartbeat if you will, the synthesiser painted over. Maybe it’s just me but I doubt it. I think the Duffer Brothers liked it, too.


20 thoughts on “Ponty’s Pen: Stranger Things Series Review

  1. Phew! I thought for a moment you might have edited Helloween to Halloween thinking it was a typo. No. Helloween are an 80s hair rock band that Tina got me into.

    I should also add to this review that the 80s soundtrack is ace – more rock than pop which suits me – and that the 4th series has strong echoes of A Nightmare on Elm Street.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. One of the things Audre will have noticed is that not only do the characters smoke but they smoke Marlboro Red. I used to love those old, simple red and white packets but you can’t see them anymore because of the warnings plastered all over them.

    I picked up a pack last week. It’s been the best part of a decade since I smoked Marlboro Red so I thought I’d find out whether they were still grade A strength, as I remembered them. Short answer. No. Either our constitutions have hardened or the makers have knocked out all the good stuff. Grrrr!

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Like a good meal, this review is both filling and satisfying!
    Here we go:

    Just so you know how big a geek I am, I’m not ashamed to tell you that I listened to the theme music on YT while reading your review. LOL! Honest injun! (I think I may need a keeper …)

    Because we are seperated by a common language, I will advise that here, we refer to one completed installment as a ‘season’ – there are four seasons so far and we are anxiously awaiting the fifth season.

    Do you remember our conversation wherein you mentioned you didn’t like child actors and I had to explain to you that doesn’t apply to this series? I KNEW you’d like them – very natural and very talented. Big check mark for me.

    Agreed. Millie Bobby Brown is remarkable! If she did not have the talent she does, this series would never have been as popular or well loved.

    Winona Ryder. Second big check mark for me. I told you despite how horrible an actress she is – she was PERFECT in her role as the mother.

    Exception taken. There is no way – No Way – Steven Ogg ‘resembles’ David Harbour. I’ve got a little ‘thing’ for Hopper … Simon is just – ugh! (can you hear me laughing? Fangirl here, lol)

    Loved the science teacher; loved Sean Astin – who is a much better actor than given credit for. Modine is very good as Papa – smooth and charming and cold and calculating.

    Yes. Hearing them both, I can hear what you noticed – and I never would have.

    Outstanding review of a series. Well done you. So well done, in fact, I’m gunna havta binge it again!

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Port … Port, Port, Port. Sigh. The only thing Ogg and Harbour have in common is the receding hair line. Harbour is MUCH more attractive than Ogg. MUCH.

    Liked by 1 person

    • One day, you’ll see it, Audre. For me, it was pretty obvious but then, I’ve spent a lot of time with Steven Ogg, having played his character in GTA5 for months.

      The Predator reference, by the way, is in the name of Harbour’s character. Before Schwarznegger’s team is sent out in Predator, another team was sent out; unfortunately, they never made it to their target because they were cut down by the Predator. The name of their team leader? Jim Hopper.

      There’s also a conspicuous Jaws reference when Hopper leaves the restaurant where he’s been ditched by Joyce. The waiter tells him he can’t take alcohol off the premises, to which Hopper replies, ‘I can do anything I want, I’m the chief of police.’ Brody’s line to his wife in Jaws, when he talks about cutting the shark open.

      This series is full of tidy references like that. In many ways, it’s like a puzzle, trying to remember where each one comes from.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I’ve watched a lot of films over the years and I just remember stuff. One of the things you might not know about me is when I went to university, I wanted to study film journalism, with the hope of writing for and one day editing/owning my own magazine. I’m a major fan of the classics (from every decade) and it would have been ideal. That’s why I get so fed up with modern day producers stunting creativity. Thank God the Duffer Brothers slipped through the net.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. One last reference and that’s me done for now.

    When that big Russian guy has a gun pointed to his head by Hopper, he says ‘you won’t shoot me. You’re a policeman.’ That’s a nod to Die Hard where one of Hans Gruber’s lackies says that to John McClane.

    I bet when we watch it again, there’ll be others we missed.

    Liked by 1 person

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