Karl Puschmann is an entertainment writer for the New Zealand Herald.

Karl Puschmann: Old-fashioned, freaky family mystery nails it

It’s been a long time since all-ages entertainment was this good.
Winona Ryder stars in  Stranger Things  as Joyce Byers, whose 12-year-old son goes missing.
Winona Ryder stars in Stranger Things as Joyce Byers, whose 12-year-old son goes missing.

The strangest thing about Netflix's new show Stranger Things isn't the scary monsters, the super creeps or even star Winona Ryder's wild-eyed hysterics. No.

The strangest thing by far is the show's mass popularity. In the week or so since its release, Stranger Things has gone from retro geek curiosity, to cult hit and can now be validly called a cultural phenomenon. It's totally deserved, the show's terrific, but it is a little puzzling.

Step outside of geekdom's sheltering umbrella for a second and a thunderstorm of mainstream strikes rain down against it.

The series is a 1980s flavoured sci-fi show about horrific supernatural beings that terrorise a small town. As if that wasn't enough to have people changing channels, the show also stars a bunch of kids ...

I'll admit that last part was a stickler for me. Despite every aspect of the show appearing tailor-made to my specific interests (sci-fi, supernatural, the '80s ...) I just didn't want to watch a bunch of kids running around.

Maybe it's because I have one and by the time she's down in bed for the night I'm fairly over the sight of children, or maybe it's because of some previously undiagnosed "kids-racism" ... I don't know.

But every single time I flicked on Netflix I'd see the big splash screen for the show and think, "Awesome. I must watch this. Later."

This was dumb. Thanks to my misguided and foolhardy hesitation, I'm only on episode three so I can't yet make the definitive call on it being the best show of 2016.

I will however say so far, so, so, so good.

I'm also told that it's from episode four on that things really begin to kick off. But even in these early episodes there's been no shortage of strange and horrific occurrences.

Brilliantly, in fact, the series opens with one.

Panning down from the twinkly night sky, we get taken into the flickering lighted corridor in an ominous government facility. It's a corridor of nightmares that only becomes more so when a terrified scientist runs into frame and is promptly killed by an unseen, mysterious ... thing. It takes less than two minutes for Stranger Things to suck you completely into its world, fill you with questions and leave you wanting more.

From there we're whisked to the safety of a warm suburban basement where our 12-year-old heroes are deeply invested in the nerdish pastime of Dungeon and Dragons. As they roll dice and battle imaginary monsters we learn everything we need to know about their characters and the dynamic within their group in a natural and unforced way.

It's the kind of masterful and effortless touch that Steven Spielberg used to display back in the 1980s in films like his classic E.T., so it's no surprise to learn that series creators the Duffer Brothers have cited those early Spielberg classics, as well as movies like The Goonies, as big influences.

With Stranger Things they've nailed it. And not just because the show is set in 1983, but rather because it totally captures the fun, adventurous, and - if you're the right age - scary spirit of those decades-old movies. Though Stranger Things has some legitimately frightening moments that had me thankful I'd left the lights on ...

This vibe has been missing from family entertainment for a long time. Director J.J Abrams gave it a solid, though not entirely successful, crack with his 2011 film Super 8, but that's the last recent example I can think of that had a group of pre-teen friends tearing around the neighbourhood on their bikes attempting to get to the bottom of things.

Here, the gang is desperately looking for their friend who has disappeared in mysterious circumstances. After sneaking out at night they stumble across a mute girl with a shaved head hiding in the woods. They take her in and from there things begin to get very strange indeed. It's a smart, tightly scripted show, filled with moments of real menace and great performances.

For those of us that actually were kids in the '80s, it's an unmissable and authentic nostalgia blast that will transport you back to that glorious age of adventures, BMXs, and curfews.

For everyone else, well, Stranger Things is simply shaping up to be one of the best shows of the year.

- NZ Herald

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