Freddy Krueger isn’t mentioned by name until
episode Chapter 5 of Stranger Things 4 Part 1, but his slashy fingerprints are all over the full seven episodes dropping this Friday. Vecna, the newest big bad named after a Dungeons and Dragons enemy, doesn’t even have to wait for teenagers to fall asleep to kill them in their dreams. He sucks them into waking trances first, prior to breaking all their bones and gouging their eyes out. If Stranger Things ever seemed even vaguely kid-friendly, it’s as adolescent in its aesthetic now as its young stars have become.
Where the earlier seasons leaned heavily into the Amblin/’80s kid adventure movies, season 4 goes full Nightmare on Elm Street, at least in its primary storyline. References don’t stick to the ’80s, either. The plot features references to Ringu, The Silence of the Lambs, WarGames, Minority Report, Spies Like Us, and even the Paradise Lost documentaries. Of course Robert Englund shows up eventually. And it’s to speak to a character named Nancy about his old, cursed house.
To those who grew up in the time period depicted, perhaps nothing here will hit the nostalgia feels quite as heavily as Stranger Things 3‘s recreation of summers at the mall, invaded by Soviet stereotypes of the sort Sylvester Stallone used to regularly punch and shoot. But season 4 deals with memory itself — both the regretful, bad kind, and the emotional ones that offer strength in times of trouble. Vecna, who resembles a zombie Swamp Thing with detachable spider limbs in his back, feeds on the former. While the latter provide different levels of protection and counterattack. Nostalgia of the sort this series has always trafficked in can cut both ways.
As Vecna’s emerging in Hawkins, Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) and the Byers family await a spring break visit from Mike in Lenora Hills, CA. The west coast hasn’t quite been the best coast for Eleven, who finds herself bullied on a Carrie level. Unable to similarly counter, now that she’s lost her Carrie-level powers. Across the Bering Strait, in the Soviet Union, a determined Hopper (David Harbour) plots every way he can to escape from Siberian prison.
Events conspire, as one might expect, to gradually draw the principles back together to the world of the Upside Down. As Eleven begins to recover memories she’s repressed, new information emerges that might re-contextualize all that we know so far.
Within the core group, the high school setting exacerbates tensions. Now an athlete on the school basketball team, Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) wants to become one of the cool kids, while Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) and Mike (Finn Wolfhard) have thrown in with the heavy metal-cranking, small-time drug dealing Dungeons and Dragons crowd, dubbed the Hellfire Club. After breaking up with Lucas, Max (Sadie Sink) remains fairly reclusive.
Jonathan’s slowly, passively distancing himself from Nancy (Natalia Dyer) for fear he’ll drag her down to his level, while Steve (Joe Keery) may not have gotten over her. Robin (Maya Hawke), who is having trouble finding a love interest in the homophobic ’80s, continues to have almost no verbal filter. And poor Eleven really gets put through the emotional wringer — it feels at times as if some scenes were created just to maximize Brown’s impressive ability to cry on cue.
Among the new characters, highlights include: Eddie (Joseph Quinn), the lead metalhead/D&D guru; Angela (Elodie Grace Orkin), the queen “B” of Eleven’s new school; Argyle (Eduardo Franco), Jonathan’s pizza delivery stoner bud; and Peter (Jamie Campbell Bower), a mysterious and sometimes annoying orderly who appears only in Eleven’s memories.
This being the ’80s, the Satanic Panic gets a fair amount of play this time around. On the one hand, it’s amazing a narrative so obsessed with D&D never went this far with it before. On the other, putting religion aside for the moment, can you blame a town that’s constantly attacked by monsters with D&D names for being scared? But while the actual movement involved fake “recovered” memories of ritual Satanist abuse, Vecna weaponizes genuine memories. The fact that familiar music can help victims under his spell feels like a subtle nod to the way the show itself uses carefully chosen ’80s hits to make the target audience feel good…and at home.
Much has been made in advance of the lengthy episode run-times, averaging an hour and 15 minutes apiece so far. This wouldn’t seem a problem if Netflix released them weekly. Finding nine hours in a day to take it all on…that’s a big ask. But the story does a solid job of progressively escalating the stakes. The first episode establishes a status quo familiar to anyone who has watched the trailers. But to be fair, the show has a lot of regulars to catch up with.
Pacing only drags a bit in chapters 6 and 7, when it becomes clear what certain characters must do. But we have to wait for them to just get on with the obligatory hurdles necessary to get there. That said, there are no annoying side-quests or full-flashback episodes this time. The show’s hands are full with the cast they have.
Even when the pace lags, it brings to mind the Lost question: do you watch the show for the characters, or the plot reveals? Viewers favoring the former shouldn’t mind a bit. If the latter, just keep in mind it’s probably all going to end the usual way with a monster showdown in the Upside Down anyway. So just enjoy the journey. Just accept that in this world, it is incredibly easy to run into a car and successfully drive away from the cops or any other pursuers whenever the occasion calls for it.
On at least three occasions, however, the narrative stops absolutely dead so a character can deliver an emotional, explanatory monologue. (And, presumably, demonstrate the performer’s acting range.) One of those two times works well, because the plot beat that follows depends on it. One is a super-clunky bit of sudden retroactive motivation and exposition dump. And the third is David Harbour, probably hoping for his Emmy clip.
But just as the Nightmare on Elm Street movies didn’t necessarily depend on plot, the scripting doesn’t necessarily drive all the joys of Stranger Things 4. Vecna’s kills, always preceded by surreal, waking-dream taunts, are the stuff of glorious slashers. As a humanoid with eyes and a voice, he’s also inherently more menacing than the roaring-beast threats of the Demogorgon and Mind Flayer. His distinctive home corner of the Upside Down feels like, dare we say, a multiverse of madness. And he loves spiders as much as you probably don’t.
Meanwhile, the Hopper stuff feels a lot like bits and pieces of lost Stallone flicks sewn together, from Lock-Up to Rambo. Hiring Nimrod Antal, the director of Predators, for the bulk of those scenes was a Duffer brothers stroke of genius. The less said about Eleven’s further adventures, the better, except to say the poor girl gets so barraged with trauma that the payoff in part 2 of the season needs to to feel really worth it.
If season 4 never quite delivers the gleeful sugar highs of 3, it nonetheless stays on track more satisfyingly. A ticking-clock device as literal as a hallucinated grandfather clock keeps things in motion, and complications just pile up from there, keeping our heroes moving and without a clear safe space. Likewise, it’s a real testament to the pacing that every time the narrative cuts away from one group of characters to another in a different location, it never feels like a disappointment. Rather, it’s a timely reminder that the fans care about everyone involved.
Even if the climax in July goes to the same well, the journey is already worth it. But anyone who doesn’t enjoy the more surreal ’80s horror cult classics may not appreciate it now.
Stranger Things 4 part 1 debuts on Netflix this Friday, May 27.
Recommended Reading: Stranger Things: The Other Side (Graphic Novel Volume 1)
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