Stranger Things is an unabashed recycler of 1980s movie tropes, so it is worth our time to explore the films that inspired the show. It’s easy to see the influences of Steven Spielberg, Dungeons & Dragons, Stephen King, and George Lucas in the show, but here are some inspirations that are not in the mainstream public sphere quite as much.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978, dir. Philip Kaufman)
This picture works to update the 1950s Cold War paranoia classic by tackling the Me Generation of the 1970s. The alien invasion of 1978 is flanked by self-help gurus, crumbling marriages, and a society focused on bringing up and addressing traumas. Stranger Things 3, while directly referencing George Romero’s Day of the Dead, also touches on the questions that surround having your identity removed and made part of collective consciousness. Billy is the character that made me think about this film as the revelations about his state of mind inform the audience that the Mindflayer is not all-powerful in its takeover.
The Brood (1979, dir. David Cronenberg)
Stranger Things has always trafficked in light body horror and even made its central antagonist of season one, Dr. Brenner, look like body horror maven David Cronenberg. The Brood was one of his earlier works, centered around Frank, a man locked in a custody battle with his troubled wife, Nola. Nola is under the care of a psychotherapist named Dr. Raglan. Raglan has his patients engage in a therapy called psychoplasmics, wherein they make physical changes to themselves to work through trauma. The deeper Frank digs, the more he discovers that Raglan awoke something in Nola. Murders begin happening to people in Frank’s life and what he finds is one of cinema’s great modern horrors.
Altered States (1980, dir. Ken Russell)
When Eleven enters into her remote viewing state, projecting her mind into the void, it can’t help but recall this early 80s psychedelic classic. Based on a novel by Paddy Chayefsky, we follow Edward Jessup (William Hurt) who seeks to uncover the root causes of schizophrenia. Jessup ends up participating in an ayahuasca ceremony and experience profound hallucinations. He takes some of the tinctures back home with him and combined with his sensory deprivation tank undergoes physical transformations, devolving for short amounts of time as his consciousness brings his body back to a primal state of existence.
The Monster Squad (1987, dir. Fred Dekker)
The Goonies is one of the most common comparisons you hear in relation to the kids in Stranger Things. I argue that they are more like the gang of children in the underrated Monster Squad. Count Dracula shows up in Baton Rouge, Louisiana intent on finding a powerful amulet kept from him by Van Helsing. To accomplish this, he summons allies in the form of The Wolfman, The Mummy, The Creature from the Black Lagoon, a trio of vampire women, and finally Frankenstein’s Monster. The thing standing in his way is The Monster Squad, a band preteens who love horror movies and know just how to take out these baddies. Stan Winston provided makeup effects, and this whole picture is a grand love letter to the classic Universal Monster Movies.
The Blob (1988, dir. Chuck Russell)
Stranger Things 3 had some of the most visceral, gory effects so far in the series and its main villain was an undeniable nod to The Blob. This 1988 remake of the 50s original is one of the most underrated horror flicks of the 80s. I’m someone who never found the concept of the Blob all that terrifying until I saw this picture as a preteen. Instead of an alien arrival, this Blob is the product of secret military experiments, now too powerful for them to control and set loose on a small town in the middle of the night. Practical special effects are what raises this film above your average B-horror flick. The kills by the Blob are remarkable, and the melting effects on his victims will chill you.
Paperhouse (1988, dir. Bernard Rose)
Eleven always an edge about her due to her powers and that reminded me of another dangerously powerful young girl. In Paperhouse, Anna is suffering from mono at home, and in her feverish haze draws a picture of a house. In her dreams, she ends up in this house, which has the distorted proportions you would expect from a child’s drawing. When she wakes, Anna finds things she has drawn have manifested in the real world, including a new neighbor boy. However, Anna’s angry drawing of her absent and alcoholic father becomes a powerful entity out to destroy her. The visual effects in Paperhouse are still stunning, and it is one of those sleeper films that is waiting to be rediscovered.
Akira (1989, dir. Katsuhiro Otomo)
In the distant future of 2019, Japan has survived a devastating event from 30 years prior and rebuilt its largest city as Neo-Tokyo, a sprawling urban technoscape. Kaneda leads a gang of teens in his neighborhood, but during a fight with rivals, his best friend Tetsuo is transformed. An encounter with a strange blue-skinned child wakes up dormant psychic powers inside Tetsuo. This leads to the discovery of what caused that devastating singularity in 1988 and the secret known as Akira that the Japanese military has been trying to hide. Based on a massive series of manga, the Akira film has some of the most mindblowing body horror imagery and features cute little psychic kids fighting an evil force trying to control them. Sound familiar?