Spielberg, Lynch + King: Duffer Bros Pay Homage with Stranger Things


If you’re reading this, you’re probably as obsessed with Stranger Things as we are. Days after finishing a marathon binge of the Netflix drama series, we’re still pining for Mike and Eleven to get together, for asshole Steve to get dumped (again – still well-deserved) and Hopper to get some excellent Scotch for Christmas after a job well-done. As we feed the beast of our obsession with the show, we’re also looking back at the show’s influences, which are unmistakable but no less interesting.

At their packed press conference at the Television Critics Association back in July, Matt and Ross Duffer, aka the directors The Duffer Brothers, admitted that Stranger Things is really just a film broken up into eight pieces. “We want it to feel like a big movie,” Matt Duffer explained. “But there’s a bigger mythology… and a lot of dangling threads at the end. We could explore it if Netflix wanted to continue.”

Stranger Things

Regardless of whether there will be a season two of Stranger Things, that “bigger mythology” is unmistakable: classic 1980s sci-fi movies. Sure, none of them were seven-to-eight hours or share every major plot point and character archetype, but the Duffers have been straightforward about their indebtedness to Spielberg, David Lynch and Stephen King. Here are all the callbacks we noticed just in the first viewing of the series:



Firestarter (1984)

When Matthew Modine’s daddy/evil scientist character and Eleven are in the interrogation room and Eleven melts that classic Coke can, we thought immediately of a movie we haven’t since in years: Firestarter. Turns out there are numerous other references to the Stephen King adaptation: both stories feature a shadowy CIA offshoot pursuing a girl with telekinetic powers for future experiments and both made references to parents taking drugs as part of an earlier drug trial.



E.T. (1982)

Stranger Things could be dismissed as E.T.: The Horror Version, which would be an unfair criticism. Admittedly, it does have the all-too-similar plotline of government bad guys in Hazmats pursuing the main boy character’s extraterrestrial/superhuman, which the boy has hidden from his single mom. Millie Brown, who plays the literally mind-blowing Eleven in Stranger Things, was told that she should think about E.T. – not the movie, but the character. “‘Basically, you’re going to be an alien,’” she quotes the Duffer Brothers telling her in Indiewire.



Jaws 2 (1978)

Note those small-town cop uniforms; they appear to be strikingly similar to those of Chief Brody’s Amity police force in the Jaws films.


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Poltergeist (1982)

Winona’s character offers her son tickets to Poltergeist in a flashback sequence, which is key because it seems to set the storyline for Stranger Things to probably take place in the fall of 1983. On top of that, there is a brief moment in which Joyce Byers (Winona Ryder) appears to commune with her television.



Nightmare On Elm Street (1984)

One of the few films listed here that would not have been released prior to the show’s (projected) storyline, Elm Street nonetheless served as the clear basis for one shot. In the original film, the main character, Nancy, sleeps peacefully as Freddy Kreuger’s shape makes an impression from within the bedroom wall. The same effect was used in several sequences in the Byers house in Stranger Things.

In addition, in both stories, generational divide accentuates the conflict, until late revelations bridge the gap and bring the bickering protagonists together to fight the evil within their own homes. In a subtle way, both Elm Street and Stranger Things also gradually point out the significance of a strong community.



The Thing (1982)

The poster for this film, about an invasive species that seeps into a close circle of people (kind of like how Lucas views Eleven in episode six), appears prominently in the background as Mike angrily trashes Eleven’s basement hideout. It’s also the film the A/V instructor is watching with his date the night Dustin rings him up for help with the upside-down theory.


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The Evil Dead (1981)

On top of creepy forest sequences at least vaguely familiar to fans of this film, The Evil Dead poster is on Jonathan’s bedroom wall.


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The Goonies (1985)

The bikes, the 80s getups, even the “fat kid” clichés, Barb’s Martha Plimpton bifocals: it’s all here in this mid-80s precursor.



Stand By Me (1986)

Stand By Me was one of three films Brown was told to watch after landing the part. (The other two were Poltergeist and The Goonies.) Kids way out of their comfort zone in a search for what may or may not be a dead kid – tying it to this series is a bit of a stretch, but not when you remember it’s an adaptation of…



Cujo and Christine (1983)

Stephen King’s influence is all over Stranger Things, starting with the title font, which is reportedly based on the covers of the book versions of 80s movies Cujo and Christine.



It (1990)

Spoiler alert: in addition to borrowing the concept of a group of adolescent small town kids confronting the fears and a monster in the woods, one most adults can’t see or outright don’t believe in, Stranger Things also mirrors the first-half climactic showdown from the 1986 book and 1990 miniseries of “It.” Spoiler alerts all around: it involves a slingshot.



The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

One word: “LANDO!”


Xenomorph, Alien (1979)

Alien (1979)

From the space suits to the creature keeping Will alive in a kind of cocoon to even, some might say, the monster design, there seems to be a surreptitious homage to Alien in almost every episode of Stranger Things. In addition to Alien, the monster design may also reference Guillermo del Toro, as Spectral Motion (the company behind the monster) have also made creatures for del Toro.



Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

Stranger Things never outright copies any of the numerous Close Encounters plot points – missing child, a search through the wilderness, an alien or supernatural presence invading a suburban household – but it’s undeniably an influence.


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Super 8 (2011)

Were the Duffer Brothers influenced by a science fiction film from… five years ago? Perhaps not, although the storyline and stylization seems to recall Super 8, produced in 2011 by J. J. Abrams and (guess who) Steven Spielberg. Among the similarities: a disturbing supernatural force appears to be released in a small town and only the kids (at first) appear to notice, missing children that turn out to have been abducted by a mysterious beast, as well as the kicker: it’s a late 70s/early 80s throwback through and through.

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