1. Firestarter (1984)
In Firestarter, based on the novel by Stephen King, Charlie (Drew Barrymore) is born with psychic abilities, namely pyrokinesis (she can start fires, ya know, WITH HER MIND) and them gov'mint boys want to use her as a weapon. Turns out her parents were test subjects in a secret government psy-ops programme (Mom can move things, Pop can control minds but gets nosebleeds from doing so) and passed on their abilities to her.
Sound familiar? In Netflix's Stranger Things, Eleven (Milly Bobby Brown) is also being trained as a government weapon, is subject to experiments to develop and enhance her abilities, and gets nosebleeds from using her powers. lt's also revealed her mom was part of MK Ultra. And her dad... well, maybe we'll find out in Season 2.
2. E.T. (1981)
You know the drill: Boy meets alien, boy hides alien from his parents/the government, boy helps alien get home, BMX chases ensue, Drew Barrymore cries, Elliot cries, we cry (we're still crying tbh). In Stranger Things we get Mike (Finn Wolfhard) hiding Eleven from his folks – at one point in a closet – plus some excellent BMX chase action, shady government figures in hazmat suits, a cute-as-a-button younger sister...and a certain wig.
Stranger Things creators the Duffer brothers told Variety they pitched the show as "really dark Amblin" (Amblin being the name of Steven Spielberg's production company, fact fans) – essentially they wanted it to be E.T. but with more murders. Job done.
And while we're on Spielberg...
3. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
Electrical lineman Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) has an encounter with a UFO while out in the desert. Despite official denial of what he's seen, he's haunted by strange visions and becomes obsessed with UFOs. Unable to cope, his wife leaves him. Meanwhile, Jillain (Melinda Dillon), the mother of a young boy, is being plagued by similar visions.
Much like Joyce (Winona Ryder) and Hopper (David Harbour) in Stranger Things, Roy and Jillian are dismissed as crazy but are ultimately vindicated when they discover the government is set to make contact with alien life. There's also a thing with lights.
4. Poltergeist (1982)
More Spielberg (on production duties this time): supernatural forces, kid trapped in another realm but able to be heard and seen (at times) from ours, desperate parents fighting said supernatural forces.
There's even a flashback in Stranger Things where Joyce surprises her son Will (Noah Schnapp) with tickets to see Poltergeist. Less of a nod and a wink, more of an outright homage.
5. The Goonies (1985)
Stranger Things is basically The Goonies written by Stephen King: They share the group of geeks and misfits, the Anywhere, USA, town, the BMX bikes, the cooler outcast older brother vying for the attentions of the jock bully's girlfriend, the girl's best friend with the big glasses (Barb!)... All that's missing in Stranger Things is a treasure map. *Crosses fingers for Season 2*
The Duffers told Vulture they originally wanted a coastal location like Montauk, which would have been even more Goonies-esque, but eventually went inland because of budget stuff. Money sucks.
Bonus: Listen out for a Goonies-esque musical cue 40 minutes into Episode 1.
6. Stand by Me (1986)
Speaking of Stephen King, the film of his short story The Body is the other model for the group dynamics in Stranger Things (and subsequently for all group dynamics in everything ever). The kids in Stand by Me joke around, tell scary stories, fall out, shake on it, pack their bags with snacks and gadgets and sneak out on a secret mission. The government doesn't much feature in Stand by Me, but the Red Menace does, and the fact that King's story concerns a dead kid makes it immediately more adult – and more in line with the tone of Stranger Things – than The Goonies or E.T.
The Duffer brothers injected some much needed diversity into their group (apparently there were no black families in Anywhere, USA, between the 1950s and 1980s) and then had their gang walk on train tracks in homage to Rob Reiner's film.
7. Flight of the Navigator (1986)
A 12-year-old boy, David, goes missing in the woods one night and returns home eight years later without having aged a day. His parents take him for tests and NASA gets involved when it's revealed he has knowledge of an alien craft that recently crashed to earth. David discovers that the spacecraft is actually a sentient life form, and he decides to help it escape so it can get home.
In Stranger Things, Eleven/Elle is subject to similar testing, wearing a similar hospital gown and headset to the one David wears in Navigator. Plus there's the whole found-wandering-the-woods thing, and suburban kids vs the government.
8. The Last Starfighter (1984)
A suburban teenager gets a high score on an arcade game called Starfighter and finds himself whisked across the galaxy to help an alien civilisation in a war to save their home. Alex (Lance Guest) is much older than the boys in Stranger Things, and they don't go to space, but the opening at least has a similar vibe, with a sleepy, leafy suburban town and a familiar-looking diner.
9. Explorers (1985)
You know what's cool? Science is cool. And the kids in Stranger Things are really good at science – they've won the Science Fair every year (except last year when they came third because of "politics"). In Explorers, three boys – including a very young Ethan Hawke and a very young River Phoenix – uses science geekery to build their own spacecraft. Despite interference from "the government" (the man had a real problem with kids in the '80s), they manage to leave the atmosphere and end up making first contact.
The gang in Stranger Things don't build anything as advanced as a spaceship, but they do figure out how to build a sensory deprivation tank (1,500 pounds of salt!), and how to get to the Upside Down (compasses!).
10. The Monster Squad (1988)
Shane Black and Fred Dekker's 1988 debut had the titular gang of misfits battling the Universal monsters – Dracula, the Mummy, Wolfman, the Creature From the Black Lagoon, and Frankenstein's monster. Like the kids in Stranger Things the Monster Squad have to fight monsters and bullies, and there are BMX bikes galore. There's even a stubbly sheriff dad with anger issues. The cool kid, Rudy, is a member of the Monster Squad, not a foe, and rather than working against them, the Man (in the form of the National Guard) turn up to help them out.
All together now... "Wolfman's got nards!"
11. The Go Kids, aka The Quest, aka Frog Dreaming (1986)
Bit obscure this, not helped by having three different titles (The Go Kids in the UK, The Quest in the US, and Frog Dreaming in Australia) but it involves a missing child and a supernatural force at a quarry. It also stars Henry Thomas of E.T. fame.
Despite the Australian setting and accents, the film carries the same sense of weirdness afoot as Stranger Things (though the story has Aboriginal origins, rather than paranormal), and like the costumes dept on the Netflix show, Henry Thomas has lifted his denim jacket/body warmer combo straight from Marty McFly.
The whole thing is on YouTube these days. I haven't seen it in 25 years and only rented it then because the title and VHS box art looked misleadingly like The Goonies. It's no Goonies, but it's watchable I'm sure.
12. D.A.R.Y.L. (1985)
Strange child found wandering around is taken in by a suburban Anywhere, USA, family, makes friends with the geeky son and teen daughter, and is found to have strange powers. Hijinks ensue. Turns out he's a robot AI with superhuman abilities who escaped from a government lab. His name, Daryl, is an acronym for something silly. Everyone loved acronyms in the '80s.
The giant walkie-talkies seen in Stranger Things are here too. How anyone is meant to believe that something as technologically advanced as Daryl exists when their walkie-talkies are the size of house boats is another matter.
13. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
Chief Hopper in Stranger Things has the hardest right cross in the Western canon since Indiana Jones, and uses it to punch his way into a government facility (and into our hearts). He also cuts a dapper figure in a wide brimmed hat... (It's a campaign hat, not a sable fedora, but still!)
14. Jaws II (1978)
He may have fists like Indy, but the rest of Chief Hopper is like Chief Brody in the Jaws sequel, by this point no longer a mild-mannered officer of the law, but a stubbly, jittery, paranoid, guilt-ridden mess, ignored by the powers that be and ultimately right. Like Brody, Hopper takes matters into his own hands to defeat the monster and save the kid. Not on his watch, dammit.
15. The Evil Dead (1981)
In both, teens battle a supernatural force in a dilapidated cabin in the woods, the difference being that in Stranger Things, they didn’t release the evil in the first place. Nancy’s hand coming out the tree in episode 5 is a direct reference to The Evil Dead poster seen in Christopher Byers’ room.
16. Alien (1979) + Aliens (1986)
Goop, eggs, biomechanical stomach tubes, a nest made of alien secretions, a super predator: The Upside Down in Stranger Things owes much to the nightmares of H.R. Geiger, as seen in the Alien series...
17. Silent Hill (2006)
...and the combination of toxic ash fall and murky lighting is a straight homage to the Silent Hill video games/films.
18. Minority Report (2002) & Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
In Episode 7, when Elle is floating in the improvised sensory deprivation tank, the shot recalls Agatha (Samantha Morton) in Spielberg's Minority Report, a character who also has a shaven head and psychic abilities and spends much of the film submerged in a tank.
On the shaven head, to persuade Millie Bobby Brown to cut her hair off, the Duffers told Variety, they showed her how cool Charlize looked with a close crop in Fury Road.
19. Silkwood (1983)
Speaking of hair, Winona Ryder specifically requested a wig that channelled Meryl Streep in Silkwood, Mike Nichols' decidedly unsupernatural film about whistleblower and plutonium worker Karen Silkwood, who was purposefully exposed to radiation after reporting her plant for unsafe work practices.
20. Battle of the Bulge (1965) & North by Northwest (1959)
While Winona channelled Meryl, Matthew Modine had his own influences for his role as creepy scientist Dr. Brenner. He told the New York Observer:
"I wanted Brenner’s appearance to recall Robert Shaw’s character in Battle of the Bulge – and my clothes be clean and meticulous like Cary Grant’s suit in North by Northwest."
21. Under the Skin (2014)
The psychic realm Eleven enters in the sensory deprivation tank looks a lot like the strange liquid void that the alien lures her prey into in Under the Skin.
22. Pan's Labyrinth (2006)
For Stranger Things' strangest thing, the Duffers approached Guillermo Del Toro's creature designer. They wisely chose to create a monster using practical effects, including animatronics in the head that would open the face "petals" to reveal the terrifying mouth underneath. The result is scarily good original creature that avoids the CGI disappointment of the monster in Super 8.