As love letters go, Stranger Things is one of the spookier ones – but the passion for 1980s pop culture shines through in every frame of this eerie new Netflix series.
We are transported back to 1983 Indiana, where a 12-year-old boy vanishes into thin air. As they search for answers, friends, family and local police are then drawn into an extraordinary mystery involving top-secret government experiments, terrifying supernatural forces – and one very strange little girl.
These were the pre-internet days when ordinary kids could dream of being the hero of their own adventures, playing Dungeons and Dragons with nerdy friends rather than sitting on their own with a video-game controller in their hand. They could still dream about finding a treasure map in the attic that would lead them on a voyage of discovery – or hope their annoying big sister might vanish into a TV screen.
With scenes of kids riding bicycles with flashlights taped to the handlebars through rainy woods at night, and mysterious government forces prowling in hazmat suits, this eight-part series nails the cinematic look of the popular movies of the day such as ET, The Goonies, A Nightmare on Elm Street and Stand By Me. In fact, although shot digitally, a layer of film grain was applied to help the series achieve a vintage look.
Winona Ryder – who is herself a part of 1980s pop-culture history, with roles in films including Beetlejuice and Heathers – signed on without hesitation to head the cast as Joyce, a struggling single mother raising two sons. It's an intense role – her character is frazzled and at her wit's end with fear and worry over missing son Will (Noah Schnapp).
“It’s a genre that I hadn’t explored before and was interesting to me,” she said “I’m really lucky in my life that I’ve gotten to do a lot of different things and so it was exciting to try something new.”
If her hairstyle looks familiar, it's because Ryder wanted it modelled after Meryl Streep's hair in Silkwood (1983). That was not the only reference she used while preparing for the role.
"I took a lot from performances like Ellen Burstyn in Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore (1974) and Marsha Mason in Max Dugan Returns (1983) and Audrey Rose (1977)."
After first catching the world's attention in Lucas (1986), Ryder became one of the best-known movie actresses of the 1990s in films such as Edward Scissorhands (1990), Mermaids (1990), Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992) and Girl, Interrupted (1999).
Then, in 2001, she was arrested for shoplifting at a store in Beverly Hills, and her reputation took a career-bruising tumble. She continued to work, but for much of the decade that followed her work was a pale shadow of what had gone before.
In recent years the Golden Globe winner, now 44, has rebounded, with roles in the 2009 Star Trek reboot (as Spock's mother, Amanda), Black Swan (2010) and alongside Oscar Isaac in HBO's acclaimed, fact-based political drama Show Me a Hero.
With Stranger Things, she is clearly back on track.
“Winona is completely fearless,” says Matt Duffer, who created the series with his brother, Ross. “She jumps in all the way, 100 per cent, and that’s what we needed for the Joyce character. She’s on her own for so much of the show, losing her grip on what is real as she goes through an emotional roller coaster.”
David Harbour (Black Mass, The Newsroom) co-stars as a troubled police chief.
“[He] doesn’t really care for the magical stuff, but wants to know the truth,” says Harbour. “[He and Joyce] have known each other a long time – and she’s someone who can get under his skin and he’s someone who can get under her skin.”
“We have so much nostalgia and love for this era,” says Duffer. “We really wanted to see something on television that was in the vein of the classic films we loved growing up: the Spielbergs, the John Carpenters, as well as the novels of Stephen King.
“And to us, what makes all of these stories so great to us – and so resonant – is that they all explore that magical point where the ordinary meets the extraordinary.”
• Stranger Things is available now on Netflix