The ‘80s were a crazy time. Star Wars was in theatres and reality (in the form of Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative). The planet was going down the tubes and the 1982 National Film Board documentary, If You Love This Planet, told us that we were all going to nuclear fast-fry in our beds. Russia invaded Afghanistan and the Brits went to war over the Falklands.
Now the Duffer Brothers are channeling the existential unease of those times in Netflix’s gloriously spooky Stranger Things. If you’re as obsessed with the show as we are, now’s the perfect time revisit the MANY films that inspired this engrossing series.
Diehard fans take note: this list is far from exhaustive, but it’s a great place to start if you want to dive into the series’ homages.
1. Stand By Me (1986)
Perhaps one of the strongest influences on Stranger Things is the Stephen King/Rob Reiner classic, Stand By Me. There are some obvious references: a group of young teens coming of age motif, scenes of wandering down train tracks in the woods, strong themes of friendship and a mix of light and dark creates wonderful tension in both productions.
In my opinion, the only thing better than casting ‘80s screen queen Winona Ryder as Stranger Things’ Joyce Byers would have been to cast Wil Wheaton (the young Gordie Lachance in Stand By Me) as Chief Hopper. Now THAT would have blown my mind. (Although one has to wonder if Will, the character in Stranger Things who is snatched by the Demogorgon, isn’t a slight nod in the direction of Wheaton’s boyhood roles…)
Fun fact: before the release of season 2 of Stranger Things, Netflix created a series of posters that played homage to classic ‘80s films that influenced the show, including Stand By Me.
Stand By Me is also available from the Edmonton Public Library on Blu-ray.
2. It (1990)
The Duffer Brothers are on record as saying that It was “a huge inspiration” for Stranger Things and who am I to argue? Stephen King’s writing and film work is obviously a massive inspiration for the series overall: the show’s title font came straight off a King paperback, there’s Stand By Me (see above) and just… everything!
Will’s mom references It in the very first episode when she jokes about her son’s fear of clowns. And a large part of the reason the Duffer Brothers ended up making Stranger Things is because Warner Brothers turned them down when they asked to remake It. So, there you have… uh… it.
3. The Thing (1982)
One of the most distinctive elements of Stranger Things is its minimalist ‘70s and ‘80s-inspired soundtrack. The guys who make the music, Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein, are part of the Austin analogue electro outfit, S U R V I V E. (You can check out their great music on Bandcamp.) Both were heavily influenced by the music of filmmaker John Carpenter who was known for creating his own soundtracks.
Interestingly the music for The Thing—a Carpenter movie and classic of the horror genre—was actually composed by Ennio Moriconne, not Carpenter himself. Despite that, it still bears the hallmarks of Carpenter’s own soundtracks for Assault on Precinct 13 (check out the main theme on YouTube), Escape From New York, Halloween and other classics.
The creature in The Thing also inspired elements of Stranger Thing’s Demogorgon— the way its head opens like a petal and its grotesque stringiness, in particular. You’ll also see a promo poster for The Thing in Mike’s basement. (I can’t help but think that the use of the word “thing” in the title for the Duffer Brothers’ series is a nod to John Carpenter, but maybe I’m reaching…)
4. E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
Spielberg’s E.T. is another huge influence on Stranger Things. Eleven is very much an E.T.-like character (complete with psychic powers) while Finn Wolfhard’s Mike Wheeler character is reminiscent of Elliott.
Both movie and series have other similarities: youth triumphing over adversity, telekinetic characters hiding out in basements and saying goodbye to unusual new friends at the end of each outing (although in the case of Stranger Things, only temporarily). And, of course, they’re both set in the ‘80s.
5. Heathers (1989)
It’s arguable: who was the quintessential ‘80s actress, Winona Ryder or Molly Ringwald? But as Joyce Byers in Stranger Things, Ryder is a living nod to so many other influences on the series: a link to the Alien franchise, a nod to Edward Scissorhands, a connection to Heathers.
Heathers, you say? Well, Ryder’s role in Heathers parallels the development of Nancy’s character in Stranger Things as she transitions from classic “good girl” into her more mature and rebellious character. Heathers is also a classic “dark underbelly of school” film, a genre that Stranger Things references frequently.
Heathers is also available from the Edmonton Public Library as a streaming video.
6. Alien (1979)
There are a ton of references to Alien in Stranger Things. Most obvious is the Demogorgon’s design and behaviour, which cleave closely to those of the aliens in Alien. Will’s experience in the Upside Down also evokes Ripley’s experiences alone on the Nostromo.
Dan O’Bannon, screenwriter for Alien, is referenced in the guise of O’Bannon, the state trooper who “discovers” Will’s body in the quarry in season 1. And lastly, Alien’s suffocating cosmic terror—inspired itself by the work of writer H.P. Lovecraft—is reflected lock, stock and barrel in Stranger Things.
Alien is also available from the Edmonton Public Library on Blu-ray.
Bonus: Dungeons & Dragons
I’d be remiss if I didn’t try to sneak D&D onto this list. Not a film reference, but a huge influence on Stranger Things is the role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons. D&D remains quite popular but its cultural heyday was the late ‘70s and early ‘80s (If you’re as ancient as me, you might remember all the moral panic around D&D, immersion in the game apparently leading to demon worship).
This is the game that the boys are playing in the very first episode of Stranger Things and the game that gives rise to the Demogorgon’s name. Some pundits have even gone so far as to suggest that Stranger Things’ characters reflect specific character classes from D&D (e.g. Mike is a paladin, Lucas is a ranger and so on).
What's your favourite Stranger Things movie reference? Share it with us in the comments.