A rundown of the 80s film and TV references in Stranger Things

Netflix’s new hit series, Stranger Things, is the epitome of the 80s nostalgia boom, stylishly picking the best bits.

From John Carpenter horror to Goonies adventures, the Duffer brothers have meticulously created a world that straddles fuzzy nostalgia and gut-wrenching dread.

It wouldn’t be wrong to compare it to the revered X-Files or Twilight Zone, as the series has fast launched itself into cult status from its heady mix of Stephen-meets-Steven (which would be King and Spielberg if that could have been any more vague), dishing out thrills and tears in equal measure.


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Following the strange disappearance of Will Byer’s (Noah Schnapp) the show navigates three generational plotlines.

Respectively, there is a group of children lost in a Steven King novel, teenagers battling their way out of a Carpenter nightmare, and the adults searching for the truth at the bottom of a Spielberg barrel of paranormal castoffs.

Throw in a young girl with strange powers, a government conspiracy, and lots of bicycles – and you have yourself the perfect eerie sci-fi thriller that pays homage to the 1983 setting with acute detail.

Begging, borrowing, and sometimes stealing great cinematic moments is all part and parcel of modern filmmaking – as I’m sure Tarantino would agree with – pastiche paying the ultimate respect to the masters of their genres.

It takes something special to thread these moments together however, and to push past the realms of duplication into originality; which the Duffer Brothers have perfected into a fine art.

Spotting the influential movies they have tucked away throughout their adventure-horror is one of the most satisfying things to do as one episode bleeds into an eight-hour binge – but if you were too caught up in the magic of the moment, fear not, as I’ve collated them below. 

The Goonies (1985), Stand by Me (1986) – based on Stephen King

Two classic movies that centre on friendship, childhood, and the escapades that come with both – Stranger Things channels this sense of fun and mischief in every scene with the young cast.

Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) in particular is a reincarnation of the ever-loved Chunk (Jeff Cohen) from The Goonies, from his boisterous personality to his underlying tenderness that keeps the group together, and Barb is the spitting image of Stef (Martha Plimpton) – whether on purpose or not.

Many of the other characters could slot easily between their given roles in any of these narratives, filling the coming-of-age arc in classic fashion.

Most importantly, these films embody what it’s like to be an underdog – a loser, a misfit – and how inconsequential that is in the grand scheme of things. Fast friendships and the natural ease of childhood bonding defined these two films, and it would be impossible to deny their influence on the group’s interactions in their contemporary counterpart.

E.T (1982)

Whilst E.T. definitely shares the same defining character relationships as The Goonies and Stand by Me, it is the alien itself that bares most significance – Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) being our very own modern day extra-terrestrial.

Notable scenes include her interactions with technology (the television being key) and her discovery through torchlight by the boys.

The Duffer Brother’s cited the little alien as being an anchoring point for Eleven’s character, as Brown revealed in an interview with Indiewire: “They told me that the performance that they wanted me to resemble was ‘E.T.’ and sort of that relationship between E.T. and the kids.”

It would be implausible to say that the similarities stopped with Eleven, as E.T. references pour out of every faucet as soon as we seen bikes and bickering – though it has to be said, Brown definitely suits the blonde wig better than our other-worldly friend.

Steven Spielberg and John Carpenter

Both of these directors will appear a few times in this list, as it’s easy to mark out the sci-fi overlord that is Steven Spielberg as a founding part of the brothers’ process.

The same is inherently said of John Carpenter for his body horror masterworks – and his synth compositional work.

The eerie opening synths of Stranger Things hark back to Carpenter’s own eight-bit wonders; such as theHalloween franchise in particular.

Alien (1979), Aliens (1986)

The unknown creature that stalks the spaceships in the Alien franchise sets the standard for creeping horror, and the Demigorgan takes notes from this notable duo.

Appearing in terrifying bursts and comprised of unstoppable and unknown powers, the best the inhabitants of the Netflix series can do is guess at what the monster is and where it comes from – just like the alien.

Both go as far as to not have names for their incomprehensible enemies, and the Duffer creation copies the goo-like residue that accompanies the alien wherever it lurks. The notorious facehugger scene is also replicated in the human incubators of the Upside Down, as is the creepy egg find.

A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

The entirety of Nancy (Natalia Dyer) and Jonathan’s (Charlie Heaton) story arc runs like this classic horror film, from the high-school loitering to the monster show down.

It even all ends in flames as a homage to Fred Krueger’s demise.

Most significantly, Eleven’s interactions with the other side work in much the same way that Freddy’s dreamscape does; she is vulnerable in the Upside Down and needs outside influence to be pulled to safety more often than not.

Also, Krueger and the Demigorgan both have creepy spindle fingers. Important.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

More alien spookiness oozes through the cracks of Stranger Things than you can shake a stick at – and a big part of that comes from influential forces such as Close Encounters. This is due to Joyce’s (Winona Ryder) exterior appearance to those around her; even though she knows the truth, everyone else thinks she’s crazy. The Christmas lights also play a part in reflecting the lighting scenes in Spielberg’s piece.

The Shining (1980) – based on Stephen King

With all but a ‘Here’s Jonny!’ Joyce smashes through the wall of her house like a demented Jack Nicholson.

Whilst this is the main visual link between the two, they both have children with supernatural powers, and a lot of blood throughout. The general spooky tone and merging of reality with the unknown in the King classic permeates through Stranger Things indefinitely.

The Evil Dead (1981), The Thing (1982), Star Wars (1977)

Whilst these three films wouldn’t usually be paired together; they are in this instance for their literal inspirations to the film – in that they physically (or verbally) are referenced on screen.

The Thing is playing on TV when the boys call their teacher up as a date night movie – Mr Clarke (Randall P. Havens) discusses how the effects are created by menial household items; maybe showing us how the scariest things of all can be reduced to bubble gum when you think practically (shown with a nice sizzle of blood across the bear trap when the monster is taken down).

It’s also seen in poster format, as is The Evil Dead – comedically used for the day of Will’s funeral and it’s “inappropriate” nature. Both these horror films are true body horror gore films, something that Stranger Things seems to aim for in its scarier parts but could improve on over all.

A practical-effects monster would have been a wonderful sight to see. Star Wars, which is not so much a body horror film, provides the science fiction awe and gives way for great ‘Lando’ comments – as well as being a definite go-to for the series’ poster inspiration.

Carrie (1976)

With more supernatural powers than we can comprehend and a troubled coming-of-age storyline, Carrie could be likened to an older Eleven in many ways.

Her continual suffering and rejection from wider society rings true with the awkward young girl of the Duffer’s creation. So does their sheltered upbringing and controlling parental influence. The iconic hand scene is given a hat-tip by Nancy later in the series also.

Poltergeist (1982)

‘Inter-dimensional scares’ are the two (three?) words that could fit either the strange series or this film. Children, spooky through-the-walls conversations, and a desperate family willing to do anything to get their daughter back ring true for both also.

Poltergeist is another direct reference from Joyce also, who has tickets for the film in the beginning of the series – mapping out the Duffer’s intention from the get go.

Below is a video of the visual links to the films it idolises throughout in a side-by-side comparison.

There are plenty more neat finds throughout Stranger Things, so many so that a definitive guide would be hard to collate – the series has intertwined so many genres, shots and memorabilia that it truly could be its own 80s masterpiece.

THe Duffer brothers have created something that crosses time zones as well as dimensions – and will hopefully only continue to escalate with the newly announced second season.

This article was originally posted to The National Student.


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