You can criticize Stranger Things for being too derivative, or you can appreciate the way the Netflix series introduces classic and cult movies, particularly those from the 1980s, to a new generation. With each season, Stranger Things advances a year, and the Duffer Brothers reference tons of pop culture of the time as the period progresses on screen.
Some of it is nostalgia fodder for the older viewers. Some of it is to sell anything from waffles to the resurrection of New Coke. But a lot of the allusions and homages are recommendations for those fans who aren’t familiar with the old entertainment. Now that the podcast ’80s All Over has been canceled, we need such a combo pack appreciation of that decade’s films.
For this edition of Movies to Watch After, I’m digging deeper into recognizing the Easter eggs, acknowledged influences, and my own personal picks associated with the third season of the show, aka Stranger Things 3. Sorted alphabetically, this is as much an index as it is a curation of suggested viewing. Feel free to point out (to @thefilmcynic) anything I’ve missed.
The Apartment (1960) – The first movie Robin (Maya Hawke) names as one of her all-time favorites when applying for a job at Family Video, proving her sophisticated taste. Billy Wilder’s Best Picture winner stars Jack Lemmon as a man who lends out his bachelor pad to cheating co-workers in need and Shirley MacLaine as the boss’ mistress he finds near-death in his bed one day. Obviously, it’s one of the darker rom-coms ever made.
Back to the Future (1985) – Robert Zemeckis’ beloved time-travel comedy features significantly in Stranger Things 3, with clips from the movie shown as a crowd checks out the new release at the Starcourt Mall’s cinema and Robin, Steve (Joe Keery), Dustin (Gate Matarazzo), and Erica (Priah Ferguson) hide out in the front row of the auditorium. Robin and Steve also have a humorous discussion of the movie while high from some sort of interrogation serum, then Steve names it as one of his favorite movies while applying for a job at Family Video. Back to the Future‘s poster also appears a few times.
The Blob (1988) – Yes, this movie is a few years later than the setting of Stranger Things 3, but I’m definitely not the only person who thought of the remake of the 1958 horror film when rats and people were exploded or melted into gelatinous blobs making their way to the Mind Flayer. It’s an underrated redo with terrific effects, by the way.
The Breakfast Club (1985) – When Steve and Robin are in the bathroom of the cinema and Steve tells Robin how he likes her is reminiscent of Emilio Estevez’s jock pairing up with Ally Sheedy’s alternative girl in this John Hughes high school movie. But the moment subverts expectations by revealing that Robin is gay.
Children of Paradise (1945) – The last of Robin’s top three favorites almost seems too much of a stretch for a teenager in the mid-’80s in the midwest to have seen (when it finally arrived on VHS in 2000, it was said to be one of the most requested titles since the beginning of home video). Has Keith the manager (Matty Cardarople) even seen it? The French film, a romantic picture about a courtesan and her four suitors, did earn an Oscar nomination for its screenplay, so it’s not too obscure, I guess.
Cocoon (1985) – One of the movies playing at the Starcourt Mall cinema, this Ron Howard-helmed sci-fi drama involves aliens and an old folks home. Going by box office history, it was likely the second-most-popular offering at that theater that week.
D.A.R.Y.L. (1985) – Another one of the movies playing at the Starcourt Mall cinema, this less-remembered family film is something the kids of Stranger Things could relate to since it’s about a boy (Barret Oliver, who is also in Cocoon) with special abilities who turns out to be a robot created by the military.
Dawn of the Dead (1985) – George A. Romero’s third installment in his Living Dead series (following Night of the Living Dead and the mall-set Dawn of the Dead). The main kids of Stranger Things 3 see the zombie movie in a pre-release sneak preview.
The Endless Summer (1966) – You can better appreciate what life was like for Max (Sadie Sink) and Billy (Dacre Montgomery) back in California before they had to move to landlocked Indiana with this classic surfing documentary. Max has a poster of the movie in her room.
Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982) – Amy Heckerling’s high school movie classic, based on Cameron Crowe’s real-life observations of teen life, is directly referenced at Family Video with a standee of Phoebe Cates in her iconic swimsuit scene and Steve’s late addition to his top three favorite films. But earlier the show pays tribute to that very scene in a gender-reversed moment when moms at the pool ogle lifeguard Billy, and it’s a clear enough homage because of The Cars’ “Moving in Stereo” needle drop.
Firestarter (1984) – This Stephen King adaptation gets a nod in the form of a poster on display at Family Video. It’s also one of the original main influences on the character Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) in the first season.
Fletch (1985) – Chevy Chase stars in this comedy, which was one of the movies playing at the Starcourt Mall cinema during the events of Stranger Things 3.
Halloween II (1981) – The recent Halloween has wiped this sequel from canon, but that doesn’t mean we can’t still watch it and relish in how much it influenced the hospital sequence in Stranger Things 3 complete with a logo for Hawkins Memorial Hospital mimicking the one for Haddonfield Memorial Hospital.
The Hidden Fortress (1958) – This Akira Kurosawa film, one of Robin’s top three named under interrogation for a video store job, is not the Japanese filmmaker’s most famous and easily cited work, but at the time it likely won brownie points with movie geeks for having been a known major influence on Star Wars. It’s similarly about the rescue of a princess and also features characters who served as models for Han Solo and the droids C-3PO and R2-D2.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956, 1978) – As with The Blob (see above) and The Thing (see below), the remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers is arguably as good as the original, so check out both versions. They depict the classic Cold War-relevant horror story of a small town being taken over with pod people, replacing citizens much like the Mind Flayer does with its victims in Stranger Things 3.
Jaws (1975) – Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster pioneer is nodded to many times throughout Stranger Things in Season 3, from Hopper (David Harbour) saying Chief Brody’s drunken line, “I can do anything I want, I’m the chief of police,” to the July 4th setting and slimy mayor named Larry (Cary Elwes).
Jurassic Park (1993) – The latest of the Duffer Brothers’ acknowledged influences, Jurassic Park clearly informed the moment near the end of Stranger Things 3 where the Mind Flayer is chasing the kids in the car.
The Lady from Shanghai (1947) – There have been so many chase scenes in funhouses and hall of mirror attractions, like the one where Hopper deals with some Russians, that it’s hard to tell which influence which, but regardless they’re always a good excuse to recommend this Orson Welles thriller, which features a climactic shootout in the disorienting location.
Malls R Us (2009) – This 10-year-old documentary is hardly linked directly to Stranger Things, but I need to slip in another nonfiction recommendation and this film is a perfect companion piece for Season 3’s central location. Malls R Us is everything you could want from a doc about malls, from their history to the economic and psychological significances of enclosed meccas of shopping. It also addresses the current state of malls and mall culture and how they’re going away, and that’s fitting for both the in-narrative mall, which is new at the start of the season and then destroyed by its end, and for the real mall in Georgia used for the location, which is itself about to be demolished.
Midnight Run (1988) – One of a couple of movies the Duffer Brothers named as influences on Stranger Things 3 released after the season’s setting, this buddy comedy stars Robert De Niro and Charles Grodin as a mismatched duo. The former plays a bounty hunter escorting the latter cross-country, and it clearly inspired the sequence when Hopper and Joyce (Winona Ryder) are taking the handcuffed Smirnoff, er Alexei (Alec Utgoff), any which way they can over state lines.
National Lampoon’s Animal House (1978) – Steve names this classic college comedy first as one of his top three movies while applying for a job at Family Video, causing Robin to roll her eyes.
National Lampoon’s Vacation (1983) – The Wheelers’ wood-paneled station wagon seems like a reference to the one driven cross-country to Wally World in the first Vacation movie, but really, everyone including my family had one exactly like it back then. Of course, the group riding the vehicle is given the code name Griswold Family in reference to this movie. They even have a box of fireworks atop the car reminiscent of the luggage placement in the movie.
The NeverEnding Story (1984) – After you watch this classic fantasy film, an apparent favorite of Dustin and his totally real new girlfriend Suzy (Gabriella Pizzolo), you’ll be singing along to the theme song performed by Beth Anderson and Limahl or just dueting with your own special someone over ham radio.
Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (1984) – This debut feature from Tim Burton (who’d go on to work with Winona Ryder) is advertised at the cinema as coming soon. The cult comedy hit theaters in early August, one month out from most of the action in Stranger Things 3.
Red Dawn (1984) – When Dustin sees all the Russian soldiers in the underground facility, he utters the title of this very first PG-13 release. And it’s apt since the movie is about a Soviet and Cuban invasion of America and the kids who try to stop it.
Return of the Jedi (1983) – One of the few movies Steve can think of but not exactly name as one of his top three favorites is the Star Wars “with the teddy bears.” At least, I assume he meant Return of the Jedi. The spinoff TV movie The Ewok Adventure: Caravan of Courage had also come out by then.
Return to Oz (1985) – Another one of the movies playing at the Starcourt Mall cinema, this Disney-released sequel to The Wizard of Oz may have given kids more nightmares than any of the actual horror films in theaters at the time.
Romancing the Stone (1984) – The Duffer Brothers cited this awesome romance-novel-inspired adventure movie as one of the big influences on Stranger Things 3. Perhaps with regards to the bickering and sexual tension between Hopper and Joyce. It’s also the movie that, thanks to its surprising success, allowed for Zemeckis to make Back to the Future.
Spies Like Us (1985) – The gang from Stranger Things are half a year away from seeing this comedy, and when it does come out it’ll look mighty familiar. There’s a secret elevator that descends very fast and very deep underground, and there are some guys unsuited for spy work who have to take on a Soviet threat to America, albeit one they cause themselves.
The Stuff (1985) – One of the new releases playing at the Starcourt Mall cinema, this horror movie is about strange goo that becomes a popular food product due to its supernatural addictive properties. More than being linked to the horror elements of Stranger Things 3, the reference made me think more about the New Coke product placement.
The Terminator (1984) – If anyone wants to make an Arnold Schwarzenegger biopic, Andrey Ivchenko would be perfect to star. The Ukrainian actor sure looks enough like the Austrian-American megastar in Stranger Things, in which he plays a Russian soldier blatantly portrayed as Terminator-like. He’s robotic and unstoppable, albeit with the help of a bulletproof vest rather than a metal skeleton. At one point, Mayor Kline (Cary Elwes) even tells Hopper he is Schwarzenegger.
The Thing (1982) and The Thing from Another World (1951) – We’ve seen references to John Carpenter’s The Thing throughout the series, most directly in the poster on the wall of the Wheelers’ basement. Season 3 is also very reminiscent of the horrors of the movie in both its gore and the way people are taken over and replaced by the Mind Flayer. But there’s also the speech comparing New Coke to The Thing in relation to Howard Hawks’ The Thing from Another World being the original Coca-Cola. I wonder how Carpenter feels about his movie being used for such product-placement shilling.