Okay, so you’ve watched and loved Netflix’s retro ’80s series Stranger Things, but now what? It’s going to be at least another full year before the Duffer Brothers return to the streaming service with another masterful melding of ’80s properties like The Goonies, Stephen King films, E.T., Poltergeist, Alien, and more, all set to a John Carpenter-esque synthesizer score; so how you will fill the void in your soul until then?
Relax, it’s going to be all right. What follows is a list of five recent films that can tide you over and soothe that nostalgic aching for imaginative kid gangs getting into adventures and bonding in suburban wastelands, spooky supernatural occurrences menacing small towns, mysterious strangers or aliens seeking refuge from shady government agencies, sneering teenage bullies, pounding keyboard and guitar soundtracks, and magic hour cinematography rife with lens flares.
The first and most obvious piece that comes to mind is JJ Abrams’ wonderful 2011 homage to misty Spielbergian movie magic, Super 8. Though it takes place in 1979, the film conjures up imagery, characters, and narrative elements from Amblin films throughout the late ’70s and early ’80s – most notably Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, E.T., and The Goonies.
Like Stranger Things, the film follows a group of horror movie-loving, comic book-reading, model kit-building middle school pals looking for ways to escape the boredom of their small town existences. Instead of playing Dungeons & Dragons to while away the hours, this gang is looking to spend their summer shooting a Super-8 zombie film. Things take a terrifying turn when a military train crashes close to where the kids are filming, and a mysterious creature escapes into the night. Abrams does an outstanding job of capturing the look and feel of the Amblin classics, and puts together a great kid gang that is just as fun to watch and root for as Mike, Dustin, Lucas, and Will.
Beyond The Black Rainbow
If something along the lines of Eleven’s story is more your speed, consider Beyond The Black Rainbow, a bizarre and trippy 2010 sci-fi/horror indie film from writer-director Panos Cosmatos. Set in 1983, just as Stranger Times is, this film calls back to weird, psychedelic mind and body horror movies of the ’70s and ’80s, especially the works of David Lynch, Stanley Kubrick, and David Cronenberg.
It focuses on a young mute girl named Elena, who, like Eleven, is also sedated and experimented on by a cold scientist in a sterile, mysterious lab/utopian commune called the Arobria Institute, from which she tries to escape utilizing telepathic powers. With its sparse dialogue, droning, thumping synth soundtrack, glacial pace, and trippy imagery, Beyond The Black Rainbow is way more avant-garde than anything on this list, but if you’re into heady, sensory experiences like Altered States, Videodrome, or 2001: A Space Odyssey, it’s worth checking out.
While Stranger Things pays tribute to Stephen King stories and Steven Spielberg films, Kung Fury is a completely over-the-top insane homage to the cheesy B-sci-fi, martial arts, and hard-nosed buddy cop flicks of the 1980s. Written, directed by and starring David Sanberg, and produced by his Laser Unicorns team, Kung Fury features a kung-fu master police officer battling Transformers-esque arcade cabinets, riding machinegun-weilding dinoaurs, hanging out with barbarian babes, and traveling through time via a Nintendo Power glove to kill Hitler, aka “The Kung Fuhrer.”
The love of ’80s direct-to-video and B-movie action cinema seeps through every frame of Kung Fury. The Laser Unicorn staff even went the extra mile to truly capture the experience of watching an ’80s martial arts videotape on an old VCR – as several times the picture becomes distorted or zaps out completely as the “tracking” is adjusted (a frustration film geeks coming of age in the ’80s should be all too familiar with). If you’re a fan of ’80s martial arts movies like American Ninja, cop flicks like Cobra, wild fantasy fare like The Beastmaster, and the legions of ripoffs and clones that packed home video store shelves in their wake, you should have a blast with Kung Fury.
The Guest isn’t set in the ’80s, but it honors the eerie, twist-laden suspense thrillers of that decade in all the best possible ways. A dysfunctional suburban family in a small town, grieving over the loss of one of its own in military combat, is surprised by the arrival of a young soldier on their doorstep who claims to be the best friend of their fallen family member. Though he ingratiates himself to the family by pitching in and helping them to move on from their loss, it’s clear there is something very, very off about the guy. When terrible things start happening, a mystery involving secret government agencies and the soldier’s dark past begins to slowly unravel.
Directed by Adam Wingard (You’re Next, V/H/S),The Guest is a creepy, atmospheric movie that also owes a lot to John Carpenter films like Halloween, Brian DePalma thrillers, and direct-to-video ’80s suspense-slasher shlock. Dan Stevens is incredibly disturbing in the lead role, transitioning from “yes, ma’am” wholesomeness to terrifying psychopath in a heartbeat. The Guest also has a direct connection to Stranger Things, as both films feature amazing, haunting ’80s-esque synth tracks from an artist known as S U R V I V E.
Low-budget Canadian production Turbo Kid is a loving pastiche of Mad Max and just about every post-apocalyptic B-movie ever made. However, the caveat here is instead of marauding through the irradiated wasteland in high-octane death machines, the scavengers and survivors of this world—particularly the teenage hero known only as “The Kid”—ride on their trusty BMX bicycles! With that silly element front and center, Turbo Kid could be described a parody of post-nuclear holocaust film tropes, however, it also has a narrative filled with heart and likable characters – the standout being the positively effervescent female lead, Apple, played by Laurence Leboeuf.
Turbo Kid is like something the Stranger Things gang would watch on Mike’s huge, 22-inch color TV – laughing and cheering at the outrageous gore effects and rooting for the title character to triumph over the main villain Zeus (played with wonderful levels of ham by legendary ’80s badass Michael Ironside), and his gang of psychopaths decked out in hockey masks, spiked football pads, and modified sawblade-shooters.