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Stranger Things: Season 3 Trailer Impressions

"We're not kids, anymore!" the voice-over exclaims. "What? Did you think we'd sit in my basement and play games for the rest of our lives?" Oh, they grow up so fast!

Note: This is my first impression of the new trailer to season 3 of Stranger Things (2016). I may not have caught every single detail. Still, spoilers!

Stranger Things season three is nigh, and one thing seems plain: the show, now more than ever, remains stuck in a time warp. The children age; the show does not. Its "past" is the sort envisioned by the likes of Carpenter, Henson, or Spielberg. Here, the action builds to a crescendo courtesy of Pete Townsend. Even as the world of these extraordinary children continues to change, the immortal lyrics of "Baba O'Reilly" (1971) provide a sense of wistful nostalgia.

The actors themselves have all grown. Eleven, played by Millie Bobby Brown, is taller, with a full head of hair. No longer the awkward, ball tween, she's a young woman, using her powers to get the better of Dustin, come home from a trip (Gaten Matarazzo—taller, but still awkward—continues to reliably supply much of the show's comedy, bless him). While Lucas, ever the straight man, ends on the wrong end of a spray can, Dustin wears the face of a screaming person Veronica Cartwright would kill for. Good stuff.

Per season, there's generally a sense of separation, the stranger things sending various members of the gang into limited stages of rivalry. Of course, it's nothing on par with Summer of 84 (2018), whose hero was forever alienated from his peers. His digging lead to the death of another child; Stranger Things, for better or worse, has never had the heart to rub out its own star-studded cast of wunderkinds. Yes, all the original members are alive (except Barb, who died in season one, but was older than the other children, to begin with). For how long will the Duffer brothers maintain their stubborn clemency? Steve, stuck with a syringe, hints at more brutal comings and goings; while he's infected, I doubt we'll see a second-coming of Cronenberg's Space Bug. One can hope.

Stories like these always involve the death of someone. Sometimes, it's onscreen; sometimes, not. Often, we hear about it afterward, as a kind of local legend the likes of Judith Meyers or Georgie Denbrough. Often, the adults are clueless to some lurking menace. Instead, the town's children must play detective. Their sleuthing is not always harmonious. This maintains the drama, because while they know something is amiss, they can't always agree on a solution. Nor do they always know who to trust. At times, they just want to be normal kids, to grow up and not dwell on unpleasant things no one but them cares about. Well, so did the misfits in Steven King's It (1990). Someone dies; once the murder is solved, that's that. Or is it?

Unfortunately evil has a tendency of coming back. But how often is everyone involved going to want to work together to reunite, and face the threat "one last time"? Here, Dustin and Steve seem closer than the others. This makes sense, given the trials they shared in season two. In the trailer, there's a visual coda—of them having an imaginary swordfight, while a bemused girl watches from behind a mall kiosk. The mall is the nexus of the crisis. Whereas the town used to be small, the mayor has plans on par with Larry Vaughn from Jaws (1975). Suddenly the kids can take their parent's hand-me-down jalopies to the mall, a strange place where girls congregate, and curios line the shelves. As they grow up, the town around them expands to accommodate their burgeoning livelihoods, but also their sexual desires. The sheep flock; the wolf prowls.

What about the monster? Well, towards the end of the trailer, there's a wonderful sizzle-reel, treating the viewer to the likes of many screaming faces, machine guns, '80s aerobics, and... something growing in the dark. As usual, Eleven flexes on the big bad, turning off what little light remains in the dark, spooky hallway. The show is quite literally the spirit of the '80s, glued together. In it, the use of monsters and shadows infuse the nostalgic past with a sense of the alien, of a hidden, nasty menace that never quite dies. This is good. I just wish they'd kept the lights off.

Seriously. I'm all for showing a glimpse of the still-growing threat, all slimy and gross. Then, as it's about to pounce, shut off the lights and end the trailer with a growl. That would have been perfect. Alas, the show is a creature-feature having long tipped its hand. Therein lies the rub: what do you show or not show once the cat is out of the bag? But that's just it. Evil changes and grows, despite the apple never falling far from the tree. Even if you hide the monster, and use sound effects to enhance the imagination, the imagination will, out of sheer terror, continue to function, despite any foreknowledge of what is making those dreadful sounds.

The mark of a good trailer is not showing too much, all the same. Even if the movie (or show) will ultimately have monsters galore, it's always a good idea to tease out them out. Here, we see everything on display—the fangs, drool, and claws. It looks like something out of The Deadly Spawn (1983) albeit with the typical digital fare that has never impressed me. The show's makers are dealing with a time period whose effects would have primarily been analogue. Yes, sequels showcase a return of the familiar monster in a new form, and a sense of something new. But why give it away before the show even starts? Terminator 2 (1991) does, but it had the T-1000 to knock our socks off, scene after scene.

I like Stranger Things. I do. It's just never quite known how to handle its monsters. Yes, the music is fabulous (more Tangerine Dream, please); the build-up is generally grand. Once revealed, however, I tend to lose interest because the effects aren't what Mr. Clarke was explaining to his pretty date—about Rob Bottin's wizardry when bringing Carpenter's version of the Thing to life ("That's microwaved chewing gum."). While the Duffer brothers clearly know their stuff, in terms of references, they're absolutely clueless when it comes to special effects. The look of the monster, from a practical standpoint, has always sucked. Where's the slime, the masks, or the miniatures? There's no stop-motion puppetry—pioneered by Willis O'Brien in King Kong (1933) and Ray Harryhausen in Jason and the Argonauts (1963) that was later used by Bottin, but also Randy Cook when working on Tibor Tak√°cs' The Gate (1987) or Doug Beswick, in The Terminator (1984).

As I watch the trailer, I think of the '80s. I know it as well as the Duffers, whose own pastiche rockets me past images in my own head. I picture healthy doses of splatter and slime (the likes of which Stuart Gordon threw about onscreen like Jackson Pollock his canvas); I think of the Skesis puppets Brian Froud sketched to life for Henson and his team. While there's none of that, here, there is a neon-lit hall of mirrors on par with Tom Holland's 1985 Fright Night (minus the disco music). The Duffers shoot their man, holding his silenced pistol as he stalks the corridors. This steers me more in the direction of Adam Wingard's The Guest (2014). A killer in the shadows is a killer in the shadows. The fun part is telling him apart from the alien double, and all the images on the walls that, through imagination alone, come alive in the shadows.

Am I excited to see season 3? Absolutely. The ingredients that made the first two seasons so enjoyable—the stellar photography and wonderful, diverse cast—are full-bore, here. The references come together visually in clever ways, too. Consider, the two-minute mark, where signature blue lightning (used by Stan Winston's Industrial Lights and Magic, in early James Cameron films) fries a man in a gas mask torn straight from My Bloody Valentine (1981). As Parker once said, "I can dig it." I just wish the effects were better, and if they weren't, that they used less of them. Or, if they were bad, it was through the lens of the period the Duffers are trying to emulate. Picture the oddity of Jonathan, snapping photos of the monster and processing the negatives in a dark room, only to produce a digital creature. Something doesn't quite fit, but not as the story demands of its uncanny imitation; it is not faithful, nor conducive to feelings of shock. Latter-day technology clashes with the palimpsest, oil-to-water. It misses the spirit of the past, material-wise; its shotgun wedding approach to photography and visual effects leaves much to be desired, in the creature department.

Much of it looks promising, all the same. Fingers crossed.


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