Dialling up the horror and growing pains: Thoughts on Stranger Things 3

(image courtesy IMP Awards)

That sound you hear as you hit “play” on episode 1 of Netflix’s mega monster hit (literally in ever sense of the phrase) Stranger Things 3 – the Upside Down world of this franchise, you don’t have seasons, just numbers, as if the new episodes are breeding up a storm all of their own – is of the horror dial being turned up to well past maximum.

It was bound to happen; after all, you cannot beset one small ’80s-situated town in mid-west America, in this case Hawkins, Indiana, with repeated incursions by evil most demogorgon and not expect things to get uglier, and nastier and scarier as time goes by.

And so they have in Stranger Things 3, the Duffer Brothers homage to the nostalgia of the ’80s, of times that were simpler and yet weren’t – the only reason our childhoods feel simpler is because we’re not aware of how complicated and messy life actually is at the time; check in with the parents of the time and their recollection will be a tad more laden – of videos, film cameras and Back to the Future premieres, and of a lingering sense we all have that there’s something dark out in those prissy suburban woods.

Much of the conceit of Stranger Things 1 and Stranger Things 2 remains – Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin), Will (Noah Schnapp) and Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) remain firm, fast friends, but as life marches on, and since they’re teenagers, we’re talking some seriously disruptive to the status quo going on here, things are changing significantly.

Love, for instance, is poking its head above the Dungeons and Dragons parapet.

While Will, poor put-upon, Upside Down-f**ked over Will, remains committed to bike riding and D&D extravaganzas, all intricately plotted and executed, Mike is kissing up a closed door storm with El aka Eleven (Milly Bobby-Brown), under the “Keep the door open three inches” furious much of the time oversight of Sheriff Hopper (David Harbour), Lucas is realising he has much to learn about the female psyche with Max aka Maxine (Sadie Sink) who’s definitely unafraid to stand up for herself and women generally, and Dustin is back from summer science camp in love with the barely-seen Suzie (Gabriella Pizzolo) who lives in faraway Utah.

That’s a whole lot of sucking face in play and as with all things teenager-y, it’s very intense, very important and all-consuming.

Will, single and prone still to Mind Flayer tingles on his neck – he may no longer be fully connected to The Stepford Wives-initiating creature of the Upside Down, but a residual link remains, a canary in the coal mines sign of trouble ahead – and very much on the outer, something that causes a rift just when everyone should be coming together.

Why you ask should they be joining forces rather than heading their separate, kissing the love of their very short life, ways?

For Hawkins, Indiana, is once again, being stalked by the Mind Flayer, with a part of the destructive beastie left behind when the rift closed in Stranger Things 2 growing in strength and power through the coerced efforts of a disquieting number of its citizens (quite who cannot be divulged because … SPOILERS!).

It’s a slow-burn menace, but one that’s noticeable, eventually at least, if you’ve fought the Upside Down before, and Mike, Lucas, Will, Dustin, El and Max, not to mention Steve Harrington (Joe Keery), Nancy (Natalia Dyer) and boyfriend Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) have most certainly done that, got the T-Shirt and the attendant trauma that comes with it.

But quite understandably, and you can hardly blame them for this, they’re all pretty eager to just get on with life thank you very much, and it’s only when rats start behaving really weirdly, eating fertilisers and such that Nancy, wanna-be world-class journalist (stymied alas by the misogynist jerks in the all-male newsroom at the local paper) and Joyce (Winona Ryder), who’s noticed magnets are losing their stickability all over town, that they realise the supernatural shit is about to get real all over again.

So it does, building and building in menace and darkness, inched up by unnerving degree after skin-crawling degree as rats and people go off the chart creepy loopy, the Russians start popping up places they shouldn’t – a mysterious presence, solved substantially by Steve’s new co-worker at Scoops Ahoy! in the mall and breakout Stranger Things 3 character Robin (Maya Hawke) and Lucas’s hilariously mouthy sister Erica (Priah Ferguson) – and Will’s neck goes off the charts tingly.

So expertly built-up is the sense of danger and growing evil that watching this season of Stranger Things becomes an exercise, if you made of horror-lite viewing stuff and spook easily, in deciding how many blankets, fingers and pauses in action you will hide behind.

Yes, it’s that scary but in the end, even the most fainthearted amongst us will see it through because the story is just so damn good, the pacing is superbly consistent, reflecting none of the stop-start feel of Stranger Things 2, and the characters are even more captivating than before.

Largely that comes down to the fact that the series keeps its eye on the character prize, never forgetting for a second that the reason the re-emergence of the Mind Flayer in all its world-ending horror matters, is because we care so much much about these kids and the adults who operate in their orbit.

Life for these characters, as noted, is changing substantially, and Stranger Things 3 beautifully and heart-rendingly at times (the final act is a master class in saying goodbye) explores themes of growing self-awareness, and the way life often pulls in divergent directions, creating chasms of absence when there was only tight, youthful solidarity.

Will is the first to really notice it since he is, to all intent, on the outer, not so involved in the changes – makes sense; after all the trauma he’s been through, the status quo is a pretty damn good place to hold tight to forever, not that you can, of course, which even he eventually realises – but by the end of the eight brilliantly-executed episodes which neatly balance terror, heartfelt chats and some very funny moments (drugged out captives anyone?), everyone knows the world has changed and will keep on changing.

While they can see off the Mind Flayer; well, MAYBE – although in this season, that looks like a massively tall order with a questionable level of potential success – they cannot stare down the passage of time which is going all out, as it does at that age, to drag them to places unseen, unknown and far from each other.

Stranger Things 3 great strength, apart from knowing which horror buttons to press, and its deft insertion of a slew of pop culture references, is the way it draws out some incredibly touching, raw and poignant humanity from its characters, infusing them into a storyline which comes with a strong beating heart precisely the people fighting the monster are as appealingly three-dimensional, and thus worth caring about, as they come.

There’s a reason why people are rushing to binge Stranger Things 3, and it’s not because of social media peer pressure which is, if you’re strong enough, pretty easy to withstand, but because, by exploring the awakening of girl power in El and Max or growing awareness of how people can change and change substantially (cue Steve and Robin, Mike and El, Lucas and Max, and yes even Joyce and Jim, of whom – SPOILERS!! – question marks abound, it movingly explores how even when you’ve seen off the literal monsters (assuming, of course, that does happen; SPOILERS!!), there are plenty of existential ones waiting in the wings, the despatching of which is far harder than any of us ever imagine.

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