Though Stranger Things 3 continues to enjoy the warm critical reception of its predecessors, I couldn’t help but notice some stark changes from the show that captured my imagination back in 2016. While the original show was a superb blend of science fiction and horror, Stranger Things 3 has put a far greater emphasis on comedy at the expense of many of the scares.
But this isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
The original Stranger Things was a breakout hit on Netflix for a variety of reasons. While it did follow a lot of tropes found in science fiction and horror from the 70s and 80s, it was in a way that was unique and fresh. The characters were rich, the plot was imaginative, and it was also able to balance good character development with genuine scares. The abduction of Will Byers for instance is a superbly paced and genuinely terrifying sequence that became as instantly iconic as the opening to Scream. Stranger Things 3 has some iconic moments, but none as effective as the minimalist nightmare in the pilot. From the earliest scenes, it lets us know this will be a very different ride than the first two. The first was like a haunted house. This is more like a carnival.
Stranger Things 3 almost immediatly introduces a comedic element into the story. After their tearful reunion in the last season, Eleven and Mike now spend their nights tormenting Sheriff Hopper via bad singing in the bedroom. It’s a trend that continues for the rest of the show. Such comical set pieces include Eleven and Max going on a shopping spree set to Madonna’s Material Girl, Steve Harrington raiding a Russian base in a sailor’s outfit, or Mike passing gas and eating chips in a bout of self pity. There are even moments when the tension is broken for the sake of a comedic set piece, most notably when Dustin is forced to sing Neverending Story for Suzie while his friends are under siege by the Mind Flayer. 3 does have some decent scares and balances the comedy with some heavier moments, but nothing comes close to much of the nail biting tension found in the first season. Overall, there are a lot more laughs this season.
The way Stranger Things is progressing, I’m honestly reminded of the Evil Dead series. Evil Dead began as a modest little horror film about a group of teens who find themselves besieged by demons in a small log cabin. It was a low budget, gritty, and genuinely effective horror film. But the series is known less for horror and more for over the top, gross out comedy introduced in the sequels. By the third film, series hero Ash Williams was sent through a time warp and forced to help medeval knights fend off the undead. How does one go from a horror film set in a log cabin to a screwball comedy about talking skeletons?
Like Stranger Things, the original Evil Dead was straight horror. Their immediate sequels were still strong on horror, but started to introduce more subtle bits of comedy into the mix. Evil Dead II boasted a hysterically funny scene of Ash fighting his own severed hand. Stranger Things 2 was able to create some great comedy via Steve Harrington’s awkward chemistry with Dustin and the other kids. Still, they both had their share of horror. Evil Dead II has a frightened Ash pursued through the woods by unseen forces, while Stranger Things 2 had an army of demogorgons chasing a frantic Sean Astin through the darkened halls of Hawkins Lab.
These two entries act like bridges of sorts between the straight chills of the original and the more comedic tones of the third. Easing the audiences into it with a more gradual change makes the experience more tolerable than it otherwise would have been. Nobody can find a genuinely scary moment in Army of Darkness, but the quirky third installment of the Evil Dead series still feels like a natural progression in Ash’s story. Stranger Things 3 has far more straight horror than Army of Darkness, but works in the same principal. In spite of its differences, it still feels like the natural next step for these characters.
Whenever a series goes through noticeable changes, there will always be detractors who feel it loses the impact of what came before. In this case, I agree to an extent. The original Stranger Things was such a powerful and rewarding experience that I honestly dreaded the sequels. It was just unimaginable that they could possibly match the suspense, mystery, and structural perfection of the original. Not a single character or moment was wasted in the original eight episodes, and every scare was unexpected and effective. It was undoubtedly one of the best miniseries ever produced, and in spite of the efforts of 2 and 3, the original Stranger Things has few peers.
But Stranger Things 2 and 3 are still very good, and though they’re not as well done as the original, they’re still worthy successors to its legacy. The best sequels are able to forge their own identities while still sticking close to their roots. Aliens could have just been a bland remake of the original, but those behind it decided to experiment a little and ended up making a movie just as beloved as the 1979 masterpiece. Setting it apart is what made it memorable. Stranger Things was about a single monster lurking in the dark. Stranger Things 3 had Pod People, Russian Spies and melting corpses.
The quiet tension and more subtle character development has given way to laugh out loud romps, epic fireworks laced battles, and bouncing musical montages that speak well to the teen oriented films of the 80s. But it’s still set in the modest little town of Hawkins, we’re still following the same characters, and we still get to see this same lovable ensemble fight another inter-dimensional horror. Stranger Things has changed a lot since its 2016 debut, but it’s still unmistakable as Stranger Things. It, like the characters themselves, is growing up.
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