The Movie References in Netflix’s Stranger Things

What 80s pop culture references and nods did you spot in Netflix's Stranger Things? We start the ball rolling below...

The term ‘love letter’ gets thrown around a lot these days: citing a few signature texts as being influential in the creation of your movie or TV show is now directorial de rigeur. Not only is it a method proven to pull in fans of those classics seeking to slake their ravenous nostalgic urges, it’s also a great way to borrow a dash of glamor, to stand on the shoulders of giants as it were.

That said, Netflix’s new show, Stranger Things is not one of those love letters. This is no scribbled declaration of romance, hastily scrawled on a Post-It note and hurled at the back of your head. This is a Shakespearean sonnet of a love letter – an artfully constructed declaration of adoration, identifiable equally by its guile as by its passion. As love as letters go, it’s one hell of a missive.

In a recent interviewStranger Things producer/director Shawn Levy explained that while “people will call the show a nostalgic view of the 80s, it’s actually also and perhaps more so, a nostalgic view of 80s movies. Real life but equally so, the movies of those times.” This is certainly true. The show appears to view the decade through a prism fashioned almost solely out of classic films of the era. Perhaps the greatest number of affectionate nods go to Spielberg’s E.T.  – it opens on a shot of an empty starry sky before moving down to the Hawkins Laboratory, the set design feels familiar (the house with the sloping drive and another with a spooky backyard outhouse), as do Eleven’s blonde-wig and dress disguise and that group bicycle chase which had you convinced the boys’ tyres were seconds away from rising up off the ground.

When you add all that to the frenzied opening game of Dungeons & Dragons, you’d be forgiven for thinking you were re-watching the Amblin classic. Particularly vigilant fans may even have noted that the uneaten slice of pizza which Nancy Wheeler turned her nose up at in the show’s opening moments shares the same topping as the one that Elliott drops in the 1982 classic… sausage and pepperoni.  

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Stranger Things borrows heavily from E.T. thematically too; while there are a number of intertwining plotlines that feature grown-ups, the kids occupy a world where they are distinctly removed from the adult space. From walkie-talkies to kicks under the table, their communications are guarded and secret. While maintaining the ‘shoulders-down’ camerawork that Spielberg used so cleverly in E.T. to frame the invisible barrier between the worlds of adults and children would be all but impossible, Stranger Things still tips its hat to that idea on a number of occasions, notably in that shot of Matthew Modine’s villainous Brenner exiting his vehicle clad in a biohazard suit, a clear visual callback to Spielberg’s ‘unmasking’ of the character of Keys in E.T.

Not every reference in Stranger Things resorts to full-blown homage however: lots of other 80s properties are referenced with more of a passing nod than a frame-by-frame re-enactment. Knight Rider appears at one point on a crackly TV, presumably the episode K.I.T.T. the Cat as it aired on November 6th 1983 (the night during which the first episode of Stranger Things is set).

Other references to the era are much more on the nose: the set dressing reflects the sense of 80s nostalgia with Jaws and The Evil Dead (to name but two) posters adorning the walls of the kids’ bedrooms. References to these films are more than mere salutations though: Hopper, the dogged local police chief has a touch of JawsBrody about him and like the embattled Amity cop who left New York City for a better life, the line in the first episode where he mentions his daughter living in the city seems to suggest that he too is struggling to become comfortable in his own skin.

Again, links to The Evil Dead are subtle but visible – one exterior shot of Joyce’s house is a clear homage to the movie while Star Wars of course gets in on the act too: the scene where Mike introduces Eleven to toys via his Yoda figure is a reference not only to the greatest pop culture phenomenon of the early eighties but also to the little green Jedi’s appearance in Spielberg’s E.T. – add in E.T.’s appearance in The Phantom Menace into the chain and you have a weird little meta-loop that makes your head hurt when you think about it too hard. Dustin’s repeated “Lando” refrain in later episodes shows how Star Wars permeates the world of its characters.

Spielberg isn’t the only Stephen whose work is heavily mined in the first few episodes. Unsurprisingly, King, that other great Stephen of the ’80s doesn’t do too shabbily either: from the title typeface that seems to have been yanked straight off the cover of one of his myriad eighties classics, the presence of the author’s work is undeniable. Apart from the fact that King’s work encompasses a sort of shared DNA with Spielberg’s (kids’ separation from the adult world often being the genesis of their fears and fantasies), Stranger Things goes beyond thematic homage with a plot derivative of Firestarter, the author’s 1980 novel. Much like Eleven in the Netflix show, Firestarter’s protagonist is a young girl with strange ESP powers, on the run from a shady, government agency who (it seems) may have empowered her via experimental LSD testing.                      

Perhaps the neatest reference to ESP powers gone awry though, comes from Dustin in episode one when looking for Will. His admission that he still had Will’s copy of X-Men #134 was a reference to Jean Grey mentally snapping after being under the control of the Hellfire Club and inadvertently unleashing the Dark Phoenix, a cosmic force far beyond her control, foreshadowing Eleven’s struggle to master the extent of her powers. As the show progresses, references to the X-Men continue throughout and it’s clear to see why: not only, like Eleven are they teenagers struggling to grapple with powers they don’t fully understand but like the boys in the show they are social outcasts, despised for being different.

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As a supernatural-themed show, it’s unsurprising that the horror-based deep cuts in Stranger Things go well beyond the realm of King. Cinematic spookiness gets more than a look in too with the same wall stretch effect from Nightmare On Elm Street being used to ramp up the tension when it appears in Will’s bedroom in episode two (named, incidentally, The Weirdo On Maple Streetdid you know that those two trees belong to the same family? You do now!). 

There’s more. The episode’s final scene set at Steve’s house has more than a touch of Elm Street about it too – the absent parents, the teenage sex, danger lurking somewhere out there in the dark and all of it set to that edgy synth soundtrack. Director Shawn Levy effectively channels Poltergeist too as in episode three when young Holly Wheeler follows a string of lights and earlier in the episode, when Eleven sits in from of the TV, changing the channels.

Sticking with the horror theme, John Carpenter gets some love too, notably with references to his 1982 monster horror flick, The Thing. There’s a poster in one of the kid’s basements referencing the movie and elements of the score are more-than inspired by Ennio Morricone’s theme tune. A later episode shows science teacher Mr. Clarke watching The Thing on VHS with his girlfriend, and explaining to her the grotesque use of microwaved chewing gum in one particular special effect.

And still the love letter has more – returning to Stephen King for a moment, episode four is titled The Body, the original title of the novella that was later adapted into Stand by Me. This episode pays homage to the writer with more than just the title as the state trooper at the morgue is reading a copy of Cujo (1981) when Sheriff Hopper comes to see Will’s body. King fans will also have noticed a visual nod to his 1985 novella, The Mist as the line fed out to bring back the portal-hopping scientist is winched back in to reveal nothing but blood.

There are of course many more movie nods and references – All The Right Moves showing at the Hawkins cinema, the Tom Cruise poster in Nancy’s bedroom… Some are blatant, some may well be simple coincidences (is, for instance, O’Bannon the state trooper really named for the Alien and The Return of the Living Dead screenwriter or are we just clutching at straws there?). So help us out, if you’ve seen Stranger Things, what else did you spot?

Stranger Things was a topic of discussion on the August edition of Sci Fi Fidelity on the Den of Geek Podcast Network. Listen on Soundcloud or simply play the episode below.

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