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Uncovering monsters

The AV Club gang is back, paying homage to iconic ’80s films like Ghostbusters.

Probably the most anticipated show to drop on Netflix this season is Stranger Things 2, the Duffer Brothers’ affectionate take on ’80s horror movies and pop culture in general. While it presents a nonstop battery of movie riffs — everything from E.T., Aliens, Ghostbusters, Poltergeist, The Shining and The Thing to Gremlins, Goonies, Jaws and The Exorcist — it also stands on its own, horror-wise, because it invests wholeheartedly in The Scare. For want of a better term, that’s the belief that what we’re seeing onscreen could actually happen, because the creators and actors involved — including adults David Harbour and Winona Ryder, Finn Wolfhard and season standout Noah Schnapp (as Upside Down-plagued Will Byers) — really buy into it. And so can we. Even more than the first season, Stranger Things 2 digs deeper into a mystery that has bedeviled the otherwise “normal” American town of Hawkins, Indiana, while at the same time never actually digging very deep at all. 

One can draw political parallels to the viral nature of fear and the need to uncover monsters in our midst from Stranger Things. But really: most people simply enjoy the show on its merits.

You’ve got (spoiler!) the return of Eleven (the remarkable Millie Bobby Brown), forming an intriguing bond with Hawkins Sheriff Jim Hopper (Harbour) in a remote cabin where she’s hidden away from the shady scientists conducting shady research and occasionally incinerating monsters that dwell in an underground alternate reality called the Upside Down.

You’ve got the AV Club gang of Dungeons & Dragons-playing nerds led by Mike Wheeler (Wolfhard, still pining for Eleven after the first season), yet the show also introduces new characters, such as sister/stepbrother tandem Max and Billy Hargrove (Sadie Sink and Dacre Montgomery), and tries out new alliances, such as the budding mentorship between Steve (Joe Keery) and hero-worshipping Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo). Add to this more of the “stunt” casting that’s designed to plug us straight into our ’80s memories (assuming we have any): there’s Goonies child actor and future Hobbit Sean Astin as Joyce Byers’ new BF, Bob Newby; and yes, that’s Paul Reiser as a shady doc working in the shady lab, designed to remind us of his shady character in Aliens, selling Sigourney Weaver down the corporate pipeline. Add to this mix ’80s returnees Matthew Modine and Ryder, and it’s no wonder Stranger Things 2 feels like déjà vu. Like Tarantino, reimagining classic and pulp movie scenes throughout his films, the series exists as a palimpsest, underneath which dwell copious references: the pullback of Will convulsing with mouth agape and eyes wide open reminds us of Danny Torrance in 1980’s The Shining; the trail of baloney left by lisping nerd boy Dustin is a direct nod to Reese’s Pieces in E.T.; and so on.

These references are so lovingly woven into the quick-paced, nine-episode season that we scoop them all up on the fly and never even really look back. (Let’s face it: it’s only a matter of time before the Duffers introduce a drunken foreign exchange student named Long Duk Dong who falls out of a tree. #sixteencandles)

You’ve also got a touch of romance à trois with the return of Nancy Wheeler (Natalia Dyer), shifting her affections between Steve and Jonathan (Charlie Heaton). And you’ve got Lucas Sinclair (Caleb McLaughlin), openly wondering why he has to play the black Ghostbuster for Halloween. And just to make it more John Hughes-friendly, there’s a charming school dance scene that brings the ensemble back together at just the right moment. All of this channel-surfing and genre-riffing doesn’t mean Stranger Things 2 neglects to be scarily effective. The Duffers are very good at pacing this season (better than last year), and before the show gets a chance to wear out its welcome, we’re done. And ready for the next year of waiting.

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Fortunately, Netflix has another series devoted to uncovering monsters right on cue: David Fincher’s new Mindhunter is much better than a stopgap creepy-crawly shocker, though it does take some warming up to. Set in the late ’70s and casting Jonathan Groff as FBI agent Holden Ford in the bureau’s fledgling Behavioral Sciences Unit, it follows the early days of serial killer profiling — back when most cops and the FBI just thought killers were pure evil or plain crazy. In the opener, Ford finds himself at a loss, trying to defuse a tense hostage situation with a volatile lunatic who hears phantom voices, holding a woman at gunpoint; the hostage taker chooses to blow his own head off (graphically), and Ford realizes the FBI lacks the tools to spot and understand aberrant behavior. Maybe they could solve more repeat murders — what Ford terms “sequence killings” — if they understood how such killers’ minds work.

The show gets most creepy when Ford starts interviewing serial killers in lockup, such as real-life multiple murderer Edmund Kemper (Cameron Britton), who sawed off the heads of his victims and performed sexual acts on the bodies. The placidly polite Kemper can switch from talking about egg salad sandwiches to the difficulty of copulating with a victim’s neckbone without raising his pulse rate a single digit. Other real-life killers profiled include serial strangler Dennis Rader and Richard Speck, who selected student nurses for his murder spree in the ’70s. (Charles Manson remains an elusive interview subject.) In a touch of Nietzsche (“Beware, when fighting monsters, that you do not become a monster yourself”), the wide-eyed newbie Ford gains crucial insights, but risks becoming creepier himself. It goes with the territory.

Admittedly, a series based on serial killers is much darker territory than Stranger Things, because unlike monsters, such people actually exist. I recall trying to research an article on why serial killers kept their homes in such filthy disarray — as opposed to TV’s spotlessly immaculate Dexter — and found myself giving up when I got to Jeffrey Dahmer: the real-life details of how the Milwaukee cannibal cleaned out skulls to use as dining ware and ashtrays just completely skeeved me out, and I nixed the article.

Mindhunter doesn’t have this problem because it has David Fincher onboard as executive producer and frequent director. Fincher has never flinched from gruesome murder in movies like Se7en and Scorpio, and here his peculiar appetite for the grotesque and disturbing brings to life a subject that grows more and more puzzling in today’s American society: why people choose to commit horrific crimes. These monsters are more and more with us in the modern world. Simply labeling them as evil (or as terrorists) doesn’t get us any closer to predicting their behavior, or preventing it before it takes place.

 

 

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Catch Stranger Things 2 (netflix.com/strangerthings) and Mindhunter on Netflix now.

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