Like anyone with access to a Netflix account (so pretty much everyone, whether the Feds like it or not) last month I gobbled up their original series, Stranger Things, in a few days of happy bingeing. How could we resist, those of us who love action and sci-fi, little green men and big explosions, dorky kids battling shady government agencies and any and all combination thereof? We were starving for anything even half-way decent. Disappointing doesn’t even begin to cover this summer’s box office offerings, Mr. Robot Season 2 seems to be mostly treading water (as visually stunning as that water might be) and there are a lot of dog days left between now and the start of fall TV. So while Stranger Things might not have been the summer entertainment we deserved (we made this happen after all), it was certainly the summer entertainment we needed.
Still, eight episodes later when it all came to an end (…except not really at all – let’s break that sophomore season curse, k Duffer brothers) it didn’t seem fair, did it? That it was over so quickly. That there wasn’t another Next Episode to call up out of the streaming void. Not cool, TV gods. And it’s not just that we don’t know when we’ll get more Stranger Things, it’s that we don’t know when we’ll get anything else even as remotely good in all the ways that it was good. Like any fresh pop culture phenomenon, with it came the realization that there shouldn’t be just one thing like it to watch, there should be loads of them.
Luckily there are. Just a few weeks after its release, the internet is already packed with listicles and supercuts cataloging each carefully placed reference and homage: E.T., early Stephen King and The Goonies are the ones you see over and over. But unless you’re only in it for the nostalgia, the problem with those is that you almost definitely have watched them already. You know, before throwing it back needed to be a thing, cause being a kid in the 80s was just that much fun.
If instead, you’re looking for something that’s new, or at least new to you, there’s a whole world of slightly weird and more obscure entertainment that easily serves as companion pieces to Stranger Things. Vulture has an excellent list of such movies and shows you can stream here. None of those overlap with my personal favorites, which I admit might be a bit harder to find (but so worth it if you can). So here are some deep cuts to check out: cinematic offerings you might have missed, and will probably really like, depending on why you watched (and loved) Stranger Things (spoilers for Season 1):
- if you watched for the resourceful teenagers battling supernatural evil: go watch It Follows
In It Follows the “horny adolescents battle the occult” story line from Stranger Things is really the only story line. This movie came out in 2014, not 1984, and unlike ST seems to purposefully avoid dating itself. Free of cultural markers that point to a certain year or even decade, the group of teens at its center are as seemingly untethered from a real time and place as they are from the adult world. But be warned, the thing that follows- monster, spirit, whatever it is – is no joke, and from the chilling, almost dialogue free cold-open to the final throw down at a rec center, this is a damn scary movie. All the more so since it’s easy to get invested in the characters – ragtag group that they are – and their mission to overpower the evil that’s seeped into their lives. Just like in Stranger Things, here, it’s the kids that are alright.
I watched this movie when I was shut-in one weekend during the NATO summit in Chicago. It was too perfect – protesters marching in the street and helicopters buzzing overhead were a properly ominous backdrop to John Carpenter’s campy take on a government targeted alien invasion. Rowdy Roddy Piper might not sell every whacakadoo line about flying saucers, but you better believe he nails the epic six-minute fight scene (you know, the one that inspired this). And intermixed with its low-grade special effects and sometimes painful dialogue is powerful message about the forces that control us and most people’s unwillingness to see them.
- If you watched for the analogue media horror fantasy: go watch Videodrome
“Long live the new flesh.” To be honest I’m due for a rewatch of this movie, but I just can’t bring myself to do it. I have a pretty weak stomach, so my relationship with early Cronenberg is very love/makes me nauseas. But I’d absolutely recommend Videodrome to any newbies because there is just nothing like it. Over time its brilliance has become even more clear – how prescient it was to the darker side of technology, the twisted potential in each modem and cable box. Plot details escape me, but I do remember a disconcertingly young James Woods playing a guy who gets consumed by his TV, literally. As outlandish that concept might seem, you get the feeling that our Stranger Thing’s hero, Eleven, would totally get it – whatever we create, we will eventually become.
- if you watched to see the kind of douchey guy get the girl: go watch Pretty in Pink
This is probably the least obscure film on this list – most 30-somethings have probably seen a pre-2 1/2 Men Jon Cryer strut his adorably quirky stuff to this:
Still, there are much more popular Brat Pack movies out there (Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club), but I couldn’t think of a single other movie where the love triangle is such a perfect mirror for the one we get at the end of Stranger Things. Just like Nancy ends up curled up on the couch with Steve (twist! right??), Annie ends up sucking face with the suave, but definitely douchey Blane. Both stories leave their adorable weirdos empty-handed in love, though at least Ducky gets “some 80s hot blonde”, while Jonathon gets to go home and hang out with…his mom and little brother?? Yeesh. And how do we feel about it all? The hot guy is hot, but the dorky guy is so sweet. What’s great is that we don’t really know how to feel. Our expectations have been succsefully subverted and anything seems possible – as long as some synth pop plays us off in the background.
- if you watched for the unironic and dopey 80s energy: go watch Better off Dead…
Was John Cusack ever so young? Were we? Better Off Dead… is silly and dumb and also pure joy. It believes one gangly, depressed teen can find love with a chic French exchange student, but not before a quick musical number with a singing claymation hamburger. Each gag in this movie is goofier than the last and yet the movie is 100% committed to each one. There’s no meta “ah, see what we did there?” subtext – it’s just the simple story of a boy and his skis (cause skiing was a thing, I guess, like a hobby high school kids had?) and his suicidal tendencies.
Ah the joys of youth – and that’s really what nostalgia is about isn’t it – it’s not that the 80s were so much more pure and hopeful than now – it’s that we were. And the Duffer brothers were. And so they captured the magic of that in eight streamable episodes. and now all we have to look forward to is death and season 2.