Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photos by Universal Pictures, Showtime, Warner Bros. and Fox Network
Are you ready to go beyond the Upside Down?
Stranger Things, Netflix’s Zeitgeist-y ’80s sci-fi–horror series, is one of the most popular and acclaimed TV series of the past decade. It’s also a love letter from its co-creators, the Duffer brothers, to the genre movies they grew up watching — E.T., Close Encounters of the Third Kind, The Goonies, and more — which contain a magic they hoped to re-create. The giant final episodes of the show’s fourth season have finally dropped, but if you find yourself wanting more, why not sate your Stranger thirst by watching the works in its (jugular) vein?
That’s where this list comes in. Below, you’ll find 40 movies and TV series that exist in Stranger Things’ twilight zone, spiraling outward from its most obvious and direct inspirations and influences to neglected and forgotten flicks that deliver on the Duffer bros’ promise. Read on, log in, and stream away … if you dare…
If the films of Steven Spielberg are Stranger Things’ Bible, E.T. is its John’s Gospel: It may be less directly influential than other films in terms of the show’s surface-level horror-film aesthetic, but it has the heart and soul that moved people more than its more straightforwardly spooky analogues — and which ST is clearly attempting to evoke. From its sinister government agents in hazmat suits to its iconic bicycle imagery to its general suburbs-gone-weird vibe to its ultimate emphasis on warming hearts over chilling spines (though it remains deceptively creepy and paranoid), this story of the little alien who fell to Earth is the Stranger Things source code.
One of the all-time great populist collaborations, this teen-adventure classic was written by Chris Columbus (Gremlins, Home Alone, Harry Potter) and directed by Richard Donner (The Omen, Superman, Lethal Weapon) from a story by Spielberg himself. Starring showbiz scions Josh Brolin, Sean Astin, and Martha Plimpton and featuring tween superstar Corey Feldman as comic relief, its story of a gaggle of dirt-broke kids on the trail of pirate treasure in the Pacific Northwest posited a world of discovery and danger literally beneath its characters’ suburban feet. Sound familiar?
Spielberg’s sci-fi breakthrough trafficked in some of the same “cover-up and conspiracy” mentality that Stranger Things has utilized as a Watergate by way of The X-Files bit of flavoring. Beyond that, though, it’s a story of an everyday parent awed by evidence of other worlds, and like Stranger Things, it uses children menaced and abducted by these forces as emotional linchpins. A recent theatrical rerelease has given its dazzling visual effects (by 2001 and Blade Runner’s Douglas Trumbull) and five-note theme (by all-timer John Williams) a new grip on our collective imagination.
“They’re heeeeere …” At the same time Spielberg was working on the wholesome science-fantasy of E.T., he was also collaborating with Texas Chainsaw Massacre auteur Tobe Hooper on this nightmarish demolition of the Reagan-era nuclear family. Starring Craig T. Nelson and JoBeth Williams as wealthy young parents raising three children in a suburban development, its tale of an increasingly malevolent haunting centering on their angelic young daughter Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke). Stranger Things borrows a lot from its toolbox, from the mother desperate to rescue her missing child to an electronic method of communication with the Other Side. The mother-daughter material here is white-hot with emotion, particularly when you factor in older investigators played by Beatrice Straight and Zelda Rubinstein; unlike Stranger Things, Poltergeist directly indicts the American Dream, laying the blame at the feet of the rapacious real-estate developer who built the family home. (James Wan, director of Insidious and The Conjuring, owes his entire career to this movie.)
Stranger Things has two dads: Steven Spielberg and Stephen King. While the Master of Horror’s supernatural stories are undoubtedly a major influence on the show, it’s director Rob Reiner’s adaptation of his resolutely realistic coming-of-age story “The Body” that seems most directly responsible for the banter between its young male characters. A period piece set in 1959, it stars a killer quartet of child stars — Corey Feldman, River Phoenix, Wil Wheaton, and Jerry O’Connell — as friends who discover a dead body and learn a lot about life in the process. Stranger Things’ scenes of the gang traipsing along train tracks are pulled directly from this beloved drama.
Arguably Stephen King’s masterpiece, It could not possibly be more directly analogous to Stranger Things: It’s about a bunch of boys and a single girl facing off against a horrible monster. King’s original novel was a period piece, like Stand by Me, and its original 1990 TV miniseries adaptation followed suit, featuring Tim Curry as the shape-shifting clown entity Pennywise in a career-high performance. The more recent blockbuster theatrical adaptation changes the time frame to the 1980s, hitting the same nostalgic sweet spot as Stranger Things. The presence of young actor Finn Wolfhard in both certainly helps, to the point where many younger viewers feel It ripped off Stranger Things instead of, arguably, the other way around.
It’s neither one of King’s best books nor one of his most highly regarded film adaptations, but from its superpowered young female lead (Drew Barrymore) to her origin in shadowy government experiments, Firestarter has a whole lot in common with Stranger Things. It’s hard to imagine Eleven without this pyrokinetic protagonist as her forerunner.
If Nancy were Stranger Things’ psychic superweapon rather than Eleven, you might have wound up with something close to Carrie. One of the all-time great King adaptations, it’s based on his debut novel about a religiously repressed teen outcast who discovers she has incredible telekinetic powers, but wants nothing more than to fit in — until bullies provoke her into a murderous rampage. Directed by the ’70s “New Hollywood” scene’s number-one Hitchcock acolyte, Brian De Palma, and written by Larry Cohen, who would also pen the It mini-series, it’s considered a masterpiece in its own right. But Stranger Things fans might consider doing a double feature with De Palma’s other psychic thriller, 1978’s The Fury.
The third member of Stranger Things’ holy trinity, writer-director-composer John Carpenter made his mark on the show in a number of ways, from his increasingly influential synthesized scores to the autumnal “hell comes to the suburbs” vibe of this landmark slasher film. While its teen characters are a more mature demographic than Stranger Things’, Winona Ryder’s Joyce Byers and Natalia Dyer’s Nancy Wheeler feel like they could be the older and younger sisters of star Jamie Lee Curtis’s “final girl.”
Halloween has its place in the horror canon, but for my money, this is Carpenter’s masterpiece: a claustrophobic sci-fi nightmare set deep in the Antarctic, in which Kurt Russell leads a cast of character actors to rival 12 Angry Men against a shape-shifting alien designed by Rob Bottin and Stan Winston. Without this film, the Demogorgon would not exist, period.
Wes Craven’s supernatural slasher flick launched almost as many sequels as imitators, thanks to the for-the-ages work of actor Robert Englund as its knife-gloved killer Freddy Krueger. (He’s a way less wacky guy in the original than he becomes in subsequent installments, for what it’s worth.) Its lack of polish really shows when you’ve seen enough other movies of its kind, but when it clicks? Hoo boy, Craven and company stumbled across a deep, fetid swamp of teenage terrors. While Johnny Depp getting swallowed by his bed and vomited forth in a geyser of blood is its most memorable scare, a shot of Freddy’s hand prodding the wall of the film’s “final girl” Nancy like a membrane eventually found its way into Stranger Things, as did the heroine’s name (and pajamas!).
As horror movies about maternal anxiety go, few can top James Cameron’s flawless action-horror sequel to Ridley Scott’s tense and terrifying sci-fi classic. The scene in which Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) rescues the young orphan she’s come to care for from the viscous alien hive was repurposed by Stranger Things into the climactic beat for its corresponding characters, Joyce Byers and her long-lost son, Will. And by both name and nature, the Demogorgon and Xenomorph have a lot in common. Stranger Things’ Paul Reiser co-stars as one of cinema’s greatest slimeballs, by the way.
Directed by Katsuhiro Otomo from his comic-book series of the same name, Akira was one of the most successful and influential anime films of the decade; in America, it was, for many years, almost the only game in town. Many of Eleven’s powers and their visual signatures stem from this dystopian thriller about young bikers who get mixed up in their government’s weaponized psychic-power program in the sprawling city of neo-Tokyo. If you’d prefer to watch Eleven wreak havoc without a gaggle of adorkable dudes in tow, this is the movie for you.
Directed by cult favorite Fred Dekker (Night of the Creeps), who co-wrote the script with future screenwriter and script-doctor extraordinaire Shane Black (Lethal Weapon, Predator, Iron Man 3), this zippy, creepy action-horror gem reads like The Goonies vs. Universal’s Dark Universe. Featuring redesigns of classic fright-film icons Dracula, Frankenstein, the Wolfman, the Mummy, and the Creature from the Black Lagoon by the great Stan Winston — the makeup effects and creature-design genius behind The Thing, The Terminator, Predator, Aliens, Jurassic Park and more — it’s got a foul mouth and a good heart, a combination that went out of style until Stranger Things and It brought it back.
All due respect to Near Dark and Fright Night, but Joel Schumaker’s stylish horror comedy about a band of goth-metal-surf-punk California vampires and the guys (and girl) who team up to stop their reign of terror is hands down the best vampire movie of the 1980s. With a vibrant cast from across the entertainment spectrum — Kiefer Sutherland! Dianne Wiest! Edward Herrmann! Barnard Hughes! Jason Patric! Jami Gertz! Corey Feldman and Corey Haim! — and a murderously good soundtrack (including the shirtless sax anthem “I Still Believe,” the inspiration for Jon Hamm’s SNL skit “Sergio”), it may well be the most enjoyable “teens vs. monsters” flick on this list, which is saying something.
While there’s nary a supernatural note to be heard (give or take a Weird Science), the ’80s high-school dramedies of auteur John Hughes are still an integral part of Stranger Things’ DNA. Ferris Bueller, Sixteen Candles, Pretty in Pink: It’s a long list, and The Breakfast Club takes the top spot. With a killer Brat Pack cast, it uses a bunch of sturdy teenage stereotypes — jock, nerd, princess, burnout, etc. — and turns their day in detention into memorable movie magic. Chances are good the Hawkins gang would see a bit of themselves in Hughes’s cast of characters.
Nominally one of the few J.J. Abrams projects that didn’t entail him adapting other people’s ideas (cf. Lost, Mission Impossible, Star Trek, Star Wars, Westworld), this nostalgic popcorn movie is nevertheless just as indebted to the work of Steven Spielberg (who produced it) as The Force Awakens is to George Lucas. If you get through Stranger Things and think “Y’know, I sure could go for another modernized riff on the old-school ideal of good-hearted small-town folk beset by forces beyond their understanding,” give this one a try.
While Spielberg’s maritime monster-movie masterpiece helped inaugurate the blockbuster business model that has dominated Hollywood for more than 40 years, it didn’t define its aesthetic the way his subsequent films did. Indeed, watching Jaws now feels like going to church on Christmas Eve and hearing old, semi-sacred songs — that’s how powerful and sublime it is in its classical simplicity. Actor David Harbour’s Hawkins police chief Jim Hopper owes a whole lot to Roy Scheider’s Chief Brody, a family man doing his damnedest to protect the people of his town while fearing what will happen if he admits the true danger they face. From the “Vertigo Shot” closeup on Brody during an unexpected shark attack to the “we’re gonna need a bigger boat” jump-scare to Robert Shaw’s legendary USS Indianapolis monologue (“Anyway, we delivered the bomb”), this movie contains moments of the rawest, purest genre-film power.
With the same level of shamelessness you either loved or hated during its first season, Stranger Things 2 features its quartet of kid heroes dressed up in Ghostbusters’ gray-brown jumpsuits and proton packs. It’s hard to get too judgmental about it. While elements of the film’s gender politics have aged poorly, it remains one of the tightest combinations of big-idea science fiction and down-and-dirty belly laughs ever put onscreen — thanks largely to co-writer and star Dan Aykroyd, both a Saturday Night Live original cast member and a real-life paranormal expert. The film’s sequel-slash-reboot, Ghostbusters: Afterlife, relocates the action from New York City to the Midwest and features Finn Wolfhard, proving that when it comes to Stranger Things and artistic influence, “the door swings both ways.”
Nearly as strong a remake of its 1950s creature-feature source material as John Carpenter’s The Thing was a few years later, Philip Kaufman’s contemporary classic shares many of those films’ hallmarks: a killer cast (Donald Sutherland, Veronica Cartwright, Leonard Nimoy, Jeff Goldblum, Brooke Adams), grotesque body-horror creature designs, and an atmosphere of relentless paranoia. The sentient-plant biology of the Demogorgon owes a hell of a lot to the so-called “pod people,” as does the horticultural hellscape of the Upside Down.
Though less frequently cited as an influence on Stranger Things than Spielberg, Carpenter, or King — most likely because he’s not as much of a mainstream talent — David Cronenberg casts a long shadow over Hawkins. Scanners was a breakthrough film for the cerebral, perverse Canadian horror filmmaker, chronicling a war between corporate-controlled telekinetics/telepaths and their rivals in a murderous rebel underground. In a way, it can be read as a prequel about what might have happened had Eleven truly gone rogue. Its exploding-head scene is still one of the most gorgeously gross sights in the history of the genre.
Before Stranger Things, before Game of Thrones, there was another runaway small-screen science-fantasy phenomenon. Lost is the original mystery-box TV series: a pulpy and propulsive romp that crosses “stranded on a deserted island” survival stories with an overarching time-and-space-warping story line that constantly twisted, turned, and raised new questions. In the pre-binge TV world, fans tuned in for the answers week after dizzying week. The divisive ending didn’t stop co-creators J.J. Abrams and Damon Lindelof from conquering Hollywood. Stranger Things’ ever-expanding scope owes a lot to this one.
And before Lost, there was The X-Files, Chris Carter’s paranoid paranormal thriller. The show starred David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson as FBI Agents Mulder and Scully (their “will they, won’t they” energy was off the freaking charts), an odd couple — he’s a true believer, she’s a skeptic — tasked with investigating cases too weird for the bureau to handle otherwise. The show famously mixed monster-of-the-week outings with episodes that built up the show’s dizzying conspiratorial mythos; Stranger Things is kind of an “Oops! All Mythos” remix of the X-Files approach. A long-awaited revival arrived a few years ago, and there are two X-Files feature films for further investigation.
Looking for more family-friendly fare for when you and yours make it through Stranger Things? You can’t beat Gravity Falls, Disney’s animated answer to The X-Files. Over the course of two tight seasons, creator Alex Hirsch’s cast of kids explore the paranormal mysteries of the titular town, which range from silly to sinister. In an era of ambitious animated series for kids, this is one of the most accomplished of the bunch.
And before The X-Files, there was the granddaddy of them all: David Lynch and Mark Frost’s groundbreaking mystery-comedy-horror-soap-surrealist masterpiece Twin Peaks. An antecedent to Mulder and Scully, Agent Dale Cooper (a brilliant Kyle MacLachlan) headed to the small logging town of Twin Peaks to solve the murder of high-school homecoming queen Laura Palmer. Over 25 years after the show’s unceremonious cancellation by ABC, it returned for a stunning third season on Showtime, directed in its entirety by Lynch, adding genuine avant-garde touches to its continued exploration of the supernatural forces swirling around Laura’s killing. The Black Lodge may strike me down for putting it this way, but think of it as Stranger Things for grown-ups.
Once you get past Scanners, there are other Cronenberg films you might cite as Stranger Things–esque before you hit this one; the parasitic slugs of Shivers, the membranous message-from-the-other-side effects of Videodrome, and the conspiracy/telepathy combo of The Dead Zone could conceivably move those movies to the front of the line. But I’m going with The Brood for several reasons. For starters, it’s anchored by the best lead performance in any of Cronenberg’s pre-mainstream films, thanks to the magnetic he-man machismo of Oliver Reed as an experimental psychotherapist. (Much love to Jeremy Irons, Jeff Goldblum, and Viggo Mortensen, but he’s still my favorite Cronenberg leading man.) But most important, this movie comes across like the dark-side version of Joyce Byers’s narrative: Instead of trying to rescue her child from supernatural forces, Samantha Eggar’s ignored and institutionalized mother character is channeling her frustration into creating murderous new offspring.
A fascinating slice of sci-fi psychedelia, this singular collaboration between writer Paddy Chayefsky (Network) and director Ken Russell (The Who’s Tommy) did not end well for the two artists. But it influenced Stranger Things in at least two distinct ways: The maverick researcher played by William Hurt subjects himself to sensory-deprivation experiments similar to those that help Eleven unlock the voidlike pathway to the Upside Down, while the stunning title sequence by Richard Greenberg (Alien, The Dead Zone) was a direct reference for the series’s own memorable opening credits.
You can’t talk about troubled-tween horror, superpowered 12-year-old girls, or, really, any modern populist-genre filmmaking whatsoever without talking about William Friedkin’s immortal story of demonic possession. Adapted by William Peter Blatty from his novel of the same name, it’s one of a handful of films — also including Peeping Tom, Psycho, Night of the Living Dead, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Jaws, Halloween, and Alien — that establish the grammar of contemporary horror filmmaking. Its emotional depth and willingness to be appalling while still appealing to the broadest possible audience may well make it the most influential of the lot.
Though it earned a lot of comparisons to Stranger Things in its early episodes — the two shows share a network and, at least in part, a nostalgic ’80s setting — the German import Dark is, well, a lot darker than the Duffer brothers’ series. Spanning several generations, it focuses on a group of families at the center of a mysterious, Möbius strip–like time anomaly that threatens not just their small town but the entire world. If you want something new to binge on Netflix once you make it through that season-four finale, this one’s for you.
As Stranger Things’ characters have aged, Richard Kelly’s simultaneously overrated and underrated high-school mind-bender Donnie Darko becomes a more and more direct touchstone for the show’s supernatural teen angst. An ’80s throwback long before that era became one of Hollywood’s favorite aesthetics to mine, DD sees something uncanny in the blue skies, green lawns, and stonewashed jeans of its setting and era — something strange enough to rewrite the rules of reality itself. Plus its stellar soundtrack (it’s the movie that brought Gary Jules’s cover of Tears for Fears’ “Mad World” to the masses) paved the way for big Stranger Things needle drops such as Max’s beloved “Running Up That Hill.”
Written and directed by “splatterpunk” auteur Clive Barker (adapting his own novella, The Hellbound Heart), this BDSM-influenced landmark pushed horror’s evolution toward the extreme by introducing Pinhead, one of the all-time-great monster designs, to an unsuspecting world. Shot on a small budget and starring a cast of primarily unknowns (the biggest name, Andrew Robinson, played the Scorpio killer in Dirty Harry — he’s the goddamn good guy in this thing), it has Halloween season atmosphere to burn and visceral, blood-and-guts creature effects any modern-day effects house would kill to re-create digitally. If you’re ready to kick Stranger Things’ training wheels off, this wild ride is waiting for you.
One of the most beautiful, melancholy, magical, and genuinely adult animated features in American film history. This adaptation of fantasist Peter S. Beagle’s novel comes to us courtesy of Rankin/Bass Productions and Japanese animation studio Topcraft — the former responsible for the stop-motion Christmas classics Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town, the latter eventually evolving into Hayao Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli. Together, they produced the J.R.R. Tolkien cartoons The Hobbit and The Return of the King, plus this gut-punch of a film, about a unicorn who becomes trapped in the body of a young human woman. With a body-horror subtext worthy of Cronenberg and a ridiculously impressive voice cast (Mia Farrow, Jeff Bridges, Christopher Lee, Angela Lansbury, and Alan Arkin), it’s like a cross between Stranger Things and a story from the Dungeons & Dragons game its characters play.
Directed by Bernard Rose — who would later adapt Hellraiser writer-director Clive Barker’s short story “The Forbidden” into the acclaimed urban-horror film Candyman — this harrowing supernatural/surrealist film centers on an 11-year-old girl who discovers her dreams and drawings are coming to life and consuming her reality. She’s got to figure out how to take charge and reassert control. Paperhouse is what I think of when Stranger Things is at its best.
Recast the relationship between Eleven and Mike Wheeler as a tragedy instead of a heroic fantasy, and you might wind up with this morbid proto-romance between a bullied kid and the young vampire who simultaneously befriends, protects, and uses him. There’s stuff going on here about abuse and loneliness, for characters of all ages, that digs way deeper than anything Stranger Things has done; if Netflix’s series is a 101 entry-level course, this is graduate work.
If you feel Stranger Things’ older-teen dynamics deserve further exploration, It Follows might be the movie for you. David Robert Mitchell’s slow-burn horror film centers on a small group of teenagers being stalked by a supernatural entity; the only way to escape death at its hands is to have sex with someone else, making them the thing’s new target. Stranger Things’ reluctance to punish young people for sexual activity is one of its few bona fide innovations. It Follows subverts that generosity, asserting that, yes, it’s fine to have sex, and, yes, awful things may happen to you anyway.
Am I comfortable saying this is the best movie on this list? Yes. Am I comfortable asserting it’s one of the best movies ever made? Again, yes. Jonathan Glazer’s bone-scrapingly dark sci-fi-erotic-horror film stars Scarlett Johansson as a woman who picks up random men and invites them back to her place, at which point … well, honestly, I’d rather not say, just to spare you the spoilers. Stranger Things’ deep-black psychic void, and its telepath Eleven’s progress through it, is swiped so directly from this movie that your head’ll fuckin’ spin — but since the movie’s thesis is how easy it is to use people for your own ends, that’s weirdly fitting.