Stranger Things has landed and, already, it has conquered. For anyone who loves horror and science-fiction, this series is a treat of gigantic proportions. And if your love for the genres goes back to the 80s, it’s a gift from the heavens. Stocked full of 80s nostalgia, including great 80s superstars (Matthew Modine & Winona Ryder), a heavy synth score and amazing wardrobe and set design, Stranger Things is about as close as this generation might get to an easily traversable bridge back to 80s film.
For classic horror fans, there's no doubt that the Duffer Brothers' Stranger Things is the best thing we've been given in a long time. For many, each episode is a trip down memory lane to a time when kids rode bicycles and went outside together. Sure, you saw a ton of references you recognized, some you didn't even know you caught, and now you're ready to go back in. But wait! Before you go back for your second viewing, take a look at this movie reference guide so you'll be sure to catch all the best homages on your second lap. Just in case it isn't clear, there will be spoilers below, so turn around and watch the series through to its conclusion before going any further.
When we first begin to devour Stranger Things on Netflix, it becomes very obvious very early that this is a love song to 80s horror and children adventure movies. While Steven Spielberg is the primary target of the ballad, there are countless little nods to other films, directors and stories. The show is chock full of direct references to The Lord of the Rings, such as Radagast and Mirkwood, the X-Men, like the neat tie-in to Vol. 134, the comic that Will wants from Dustin—also the first appearance of Jean Grey's unstable alter-ego Dark Phoenix, and many more. Even without direct references, Stranger Things follows the pattern set out by so many classic 80s and early 90s films. It's nearly impossible to watch the journey without being reminded of similar journeys like The Monster Squad, The Gate and Cloak & Dagger. Part of the fun is seeing and understanding a reference, giving you a glimpse into the Duffer Brothers' motivations. The film sets itself like an Easter egg hunt that fans of the genre can get a real kick out of. I haven't found nor included all of them, but I've tried to collect the best. Here are 15 movie references in Stranger Things that you may have missed. And let me know which ones I've missed.
The type of mystery like the one in Stranger Things can only be solved by kids because kids are the only ones who believe in movie-world monsters. This is a formula that Stephen King and Steven Spielberg made iconic for a generation of kids. The four companions, the bullies, the journey, it all reminds us of Stand by Me—based on Stephen King's novella The Body. The one scene that evokes a much more concrete memory of the 1986 movie sees the children walking down the train tracks following their compasses. Whenever we see train tracks and kids, there's only one image that comes to mind. I'd even argue that the only reason kids walk train tracks nowadays is to pay tribute to Stand by Me.
The most obvious association between Stranger Things and Evil Dead is with the Evil Dead poster on Johnathan Byers' (Dustin Heaton), Will's brother's wall. More than just funny, his father telling him to take it down because it's "inappropriate" is also foreshadowing a return of the "dead" Will. While this is just small reference acknowledging the influence of the classic film, there's also the "lock and load" montage, in which Johnathan and Nancy (Natalia Dyer) prep to fight the monster, that screams Evil Dead. Even Joyce Byers (Winona Ryder) reminds us a little of Ash (Bruce Campbell), especially as she sits on her couch waiting for the monster to return and "get some." There's also the façade of the Byers' house and the front porch that is a subtle reminder of the creepy cabin in Evil Dead.
There are quite a few references to Ridley Scott's Alien throughout Stranger Things, some are merely similarities like the hazard suits and the egg thing that looks a lot like the cover of Alien. Some are possibly coincidental such as Hopper accidentally saying the name O'Bannon, maybe referring to Alien screenwriter Dan O'Bannon. Others are more direct, like when the monster pins down Johnathan Byers and drools in his mouth, almost definitely connected to Sigourney Weaver's scene with the Space Jockey, and then there's the Facehugger slug thing that Will has on his face and down his throat, which is just about as gross as the Scott's Facehugger from space. The Alien connections may not be as clear-cut as some others, but you can't make a science-fiction movie with Alien influencing it, so I'm willing to bet on these being intentional.
I wouldn't be surprised to learn that the heavy synth soundtrack that sounds so amazing in Stranger Things had John Carpenter's fingerprints all over it. It doesn't, but the score was no doubt influenced by his early work. The main song throughout the series is eerily reminiscent of the backdrop to Halloween and even the title sequences are pretty close. The font type itself is probably closer to Stephen King's favorite fonts, but once you hear the similarities in sounds between Halloween and Stranger Things, you surely won't be able to forget it.
Dustin continues to call Chief Jim Hopper Lando Calrissian after they strike a deal with the police officer in order to help each El and Will. Eventually, when the Hawkins group come to the school after Hopper and Joyce have been arrested, Dustin's foresight is validated and he lets everyone know about it. Well, for anyone who didn't see The Empire Strikes Back, Lando is put in a difficult spot, in which he needs to decide whether to save his people and sell out Han Solo and the good guys or tell Darth Vader and his posse of bad guys to scram. Lando eventually betrays the good guys (later redeeming himself). Similarly, Hopper makes a decision to betray El in order to save Joyce's son, Will. This is most definitely a Lando-type decision and Dustin was right to warn everyone. That may be the reason why the kids are able to get a head start even after being betrayed.
First off, there's a poster of John Carpenter's The Thing, which is a gentle nudge to the horror icon. But there's another connection that is pretty cool. The kid's science teacher in Stranger Things is the classic teacher who knows absolutely everything, from the building of sensory deprivation tanks to the mechanics of alternate dimensions. During the sensory deprivation tank phone call from Dustin, the teacher is watching The Thing on TV with his girlfriend. There's an interesting side note here too, though it is almost certainly not connected. In John Carpenter's Halloween, Lindsay Wallace, one of the kids being babysat, is watching The Thing from Another World, the inspiration for Carpenter's later hit, The Thing. Maybe there's three-levels of influence here in this moment, but then again, it may be nothing more than a great movie to have on the TV.
El brings to mind quite a few different characters and stories. Super powered young people on the run is an interesting topic and it's been explored numerous times in film. One of El's particular powers, telekinesis, is probably most famously done in Stephen King's Carrie, but I would argue that El is more closely connected to King's Firestarter. Both female characters are wanted by government agencies and are on the run, using their crazy powers to fend off the government's efforts of capturing them. There's also the frequent nosebleeds too when a power is used too much, which is also in Firestarter.
This one plays to the big city cop in a small town trope. The other cops even call Jim Hopper (David Harbour) out on it in one scene. Hopper is very Chief Brody-like, the protagonist from Jaws; we see it in both his conviction and his work ethic. If subtle character references aren't your thing, Will also has a Jaws poster in his room, the very poster that shows a victim about to be grabbed by a monster from underneath. On top of all of this, the best little nod to Jaws occurs when Hopper writes up his missing person report and the camera zooms in on the typewriter, almost an identical shot to the one Spielberg took in Jaws for Brody's report.
There are two scenes in particular which really highlight the connection between Stranger Things and A Nightmare on Elm Street. The most obvious is the monster coming through the wall just like Freddy Krueger did in 1984. Peter Jackson's The Frighteners would also go on to do this later on as well. The second scene involves Nancy and Johnathan Byers booby-trapping Johnathan's home in order to lure and kill the monster. Nancy in A Nightmare on Elm Street does this for Freddy Kruger, as well. Both the series and the film have great booby-trapping montages as well. Names are always tough to show a connection but maybe Nancy and Johnathan are a tip of the cap to Nancy from A Nightmare on Elm Street and her boyfriend Glen (Johnny Depp).
There are quite a few links between Stephen King's It and the Duffer Brother's Stranger Things, but I'll only highlight the biggest ones. First, the outcast group itself is similar to the "Loser's Club" from It. Both groups are picked on by bullies, with the leader bully even brandishing a knife and causing one of the protagonists to fall/jump off a hill/cliff. There's also the pipe in Stranger Things, which one of the cops asks if Will could squeeze through. This is possibly connected to the poor kid who got sucked into that tiny pipe in It, killing him in the most brutal of fashions. Then there's the slingshot. In It, Beverly fires silver bullets from her slingshot at the monster and it fatally wounds him. This expectation is played with in Stranger Things by having Lucas fire at the monster but failing to do any harm.
The incredible 1982 horror film Poltergeist (written by Steven Spielberg), is another one that has too much of an influence on Stranger Things to count each reference individually, but we can name a few to get it started. Outside of the possible nameplay with Chief Jim Hopper (David Harbour) and Poltergeist's director Tobe Hooper, both stories involve a child taken to another dimension and a family trying to get him or her back. Both stories have a mother who is somewhat consumed trying to connect to the other side. Both have a physical portal/opening to the other side and technology is a means of communication. Heck, even Mike Wheeler's little sister is a reminder of sweet Carol Ann from Poltergeist. The entire premise is largely indebted to Poltergeist, and Stranger Things pays homage to it quite well.
Similar to Poltergeist, the main character, Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss), in Close Encounters of the Third Kind becomes absolutely obsessed with something; in this case, it's the Devil's Tower. This obsession is very close to the obsession that Joyce gets with the lights, letting it take over her home and drive people away from her. Roy builds a replica of Devil's Tower in his home, starting with mashed potatoes and then growing it to a massive scale model. There is a possibility that the communication with lights is connected to Close Encounters of the Third Kind as well because of the communicatory lights on the alien vessel at the end, but I'm not sold on that.
A few times in Stranger Things, the Duffer Brothers use the expectations set up by the films that influenced them to enhance the present-day viewing experience. Since the connections are so palpable between Stranger Things and Spielberg's E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, and since E.T. is so well-known by movie fans, the brothers were able to flip a few references on their heads, almost literally. The best of the bunch has the group of kids riding their bikes toward an oncoming Hawkins van. Right away, we're brought back to the image of the bikes racing toward the police roadblock from E.T. the Extra Terrestrial. We expect to see El lift the boys over the van as E.T. did for Elliot and the gang (note the play on the names), but instead, El lifts the van up and flips it over the kids' heads instead. Touché.
The Goonies is another one of those children adventure movies that Stranger Things is connected to so thoroughly that it would be too cumbersome to address everything. We have Lucas donning a bandana that might remind some of Josh Brolin's red bandeezy from The Goonies. Both misfit band of kids are not the most popular bunch of kids, both groups of kids require the help from older siblings and both stories have almost no adult intervention. Actually, The Monster Squad fits with all three of these connections as well. The scene that is the most interesting for The Goonies fans is when Dustin is asked to "do that thing", an embarrassing arm-bending-cracking thing that is very reminiscent of the famous "truffle shuffle" that Chunk does so well in The Goonies.
There are so many E.T connections in Stranger Things that it needed another entry all to itself to name more of them. While El and E.T. obviously have a lot in common, there are some interesting parallels in their stories as well. Both El and E.T. mimic speech from the people around them, learning simple combinations of words, usually as spoken by their caretakers. Then there's the fantastic connection between the disguises that the two put on, the dress and blonde wig that El definitely wore better. There's also some cool mirroring in the first encounters within the two flicks, Will and the Demogorgon meeting in the shed, the same place that Elliot first met E.T. This last one may be more coincidental, but it's an interesting thought nonetheless.