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Stranger Things: Series 3 (15)

Director: Matt DufferRoss Duffer

Starring: Millie Bobby BrownFinn WolfhardWinona Ryder

Review: David Stephens

Ah, “Stranger Things”. How much do we love you? When the Duffer Bros (Matt and Ross) dropped this beguiling mixture of nostalgia and retro-horror on Netflix in 2016, could anybody have anticipated its impact? But people binge-watched the first season, leading to excellent critical reviews and word-of-mouth to do the job of the streaming channel’s publicity team. You can over-analyse the many reasons why the show became such a hit, good writing and likeable characters apart. For a start the 80s setting will always be a memorable time for Gen-X fans, and ST tapped into that, mostly by evoking the spirit of much-loved films from this era like “The Thing”, “Scanners”, “The Goonies”, and “Ghostbusters”. Even the simple 45-seconds-long title sequence feels like it should be viewed on a VHS cassette and makes older horror fans hug themselves with glee. Seriously, how many other shows have had their opening credits score over 8m views on YouTube in two years! Just. The. Credits. But perhaps more impressively, although the premise plays homage to 80s horror, they have created a mythology that’s hit its target and stuck with a younger demographic as well. This is best realised by the way “The Upside Down” has become a familiar term for IRL wackness, and a hashtag like #JusticeForBarb became a pop culture reference. Now, after a longer than anticipated wait, Season 3 is streaming on Netflix in the US and UK. The gang are all back, but as there were some gripes about some of the repeated themes in Season 2 (poor Will) and a certain sub-plot (*cough*Kali*cough*), how does this measure against the ground-breaking first outing? Well, when the 80s call, sometimes you gotta fly into the Danger-Zone…. But only in a Spoilers-Free kinda way.

We get a brief taste of (stranger) things to come, as the first episode starts in June 1984. Some new mystery science/army guys appear to be trying to punch a hole into “The Upside Down” dimension. This was never going to end well… and it doesn’t, with jellified corpses littering the ground and a whole heap of nothing. But just who would attempt to do that anyway? And for what reasons? Fast-forwarding a year to July 1985, the inhabitants of Hawkins are living their well-deserved happy-ever-afters… Well, mostly anyway. Mike (Finn Wolfhard) and Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) have a burgeoning teen-romance, much to Sheriff Jim Hopper’s (David Harbour) annoyance. Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) and Max (Sadie Sink) are still an item, with Max very much part of the gang now. Will (Noah Schnapp) is finding that Dungeons & Dragons is no longer the drawing the guys together anymore, and Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) returns from science camp claiming to have a long-distance girlfriend (who looks like Phoebe Cates of course). The older kids are now either working at the Starcourt Mall, the local newspaper, or the community swimming pool. The threat of the Mind-Flayer is in the past, as the dimensional gateway has been sealed and Eleven always has her telekinetic “super-powers” on order. But of course, it’s not over. And a power cut and other weird occurrences point to something from the Upside-Down invading our realm again and presenting a bigger threat than the Demogorgon or Demodogs. Something MUCH bigger…

In all honesty, Season 2 of “Stranger” felt almost like an expansion or DLC to the first story arc; Will in trouble again, Demodogs, Eleven’s search for her origins, etc. Although good ol’ Bob Newby (Sean Astin) and Max were great additions to the cast. (NB: Bob’s not forgotten either *sniff*). However Season 3 dials things up a notch in several respects, especially when it comes to character development and embracing more brash 80s tropes. It feels like a genuine next chapter for the tale of Eleven and the Hawkins’ residents, and takes time to revel in their lovable idiosyncrasies. Perhaps the best thing that the Duffer Bros have achieved in this story arc is the way in which they have woven several elaborate plot-strands together, and used it as a catalyst to explore each and every member of the cast. Got a particular favourite? Don’t worry. They’ll get their moment-in-the-sun at some point. It never turns into just “The Eleven Saga” or “Sheriff Hopper’s Action Hour”. Winona Ryder (Joyce Byers) is given something to do other than worry herself sick over Will, as she exercises her comic timing chops once again. In fact, the majority of scenes with her and Hopper buzz like an 80s mis-matched buddy-cop thriller and are a joy to watch. Steve “The Hair” Harrington (Joe Keery) develops his Big Brother persona further, has some of the best dialogue scenes with his buddy Dustin, gets an unorthodox family unit to lead, and even wins a fight! Of course there’s also a bit of social commentary about the worst aspects of that decade with the high street shops dying a death because of the mega Shopping Mall, and journalists behaving like misogynist scumbags around wannabe reporter Nancy (Natalia Dyer). But the parts that always hit you in the gut are the ones where the individual Scooby gangs ultimately join forces for feel-good vibes, and get on with whupping big-monster-ass. Season 3 has a doozy by the way…

Whereas the Demogorgon and Demodogs had their day, the latest Upside Down antagonist is particularly well presented. It also allows for a number of references to classic horror tropes and shots. So it’s either the biggest set of coincidences in the world, or you can spot direct shot-for-shot tributes to movies like “Piranha”, “Deep Rising”, “Alien 3”, “The Blob” and a certain classic piece of 50s paranoia sci-fi. So whilst the 8 episodes ladle on some action-movie elements and comedic ripostes, there’s still some surprisingly gory and gooey moments in there. Not to mention a monster-on-the-loose vibe that is great fun to watch. In fact a couple of scenes give us the “Carrie Vs. The Thing” mash-up that you never knew you wanted until now! So despite some of the pathos and quirky character “shipping” that goes on, do expect some real danger and deaths… and living things impressively dissolving into puddles of goo. (NB: In fact the gore FX has already caused some amusing over-reactions in the fickle British press). The narrative also does the right thing with the much-loved cast, by embracing their growing-pains into the plot as oppose to just throwing horror cliché’s at them constantly and ignoring character development. This is helped by the addition of newbie Robin (Maya Hawke) and promoted-to-the-gang Erica (Priah Ferguson), two characters which could have gone badly wrong, but immediately fit right in with the banter with some choice lines (“You can’t spell America without Erica!”). But if you really want to enjoy this Season, you’re going to have to allow some massive gaps in credibility and remind yourself of the general excesses from 80s cinema. Because the plot goes full “Austin Powers” in terms of realism, and there’s even a deliberately Terminator-ish adversary for Hopper to engage with. And that’s not even mentioning the inevitable dress-up montage (complete with “Material Girl”) and a rousing variation of “The Never Ending Story” theme song. If you’re cool with that and just want to hang with the Hawkins’ kids again, for some retro horror vibes and some fun (and maybe a few tears), then this is another bullseye. And yes, there are the inevitable teases for Season 4… and we’re already there.

For the most part ST3 is bigger, funnier, and slicker than the previous seasons.
It achieves this by adopting even more 80s and nostalgia tropes than before, embracing action-comedy beats and a satisfyingly ludicrous Cold War angle.
Along with the comedy and pathos, there still exists some cool horror homage and a great monster. It doesn’t quite have the original sting of the first Season, but it feels like a satisfying sequel and improves on the last one. Plenty of hope for Season 4.
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