Episodes viewed: 4 out of 7
After a nearly three-year absence, beloved 80s-inspired behemoth series Stranger Things finally returns to Netflix for the highly anticipated fourth season. Not content with extending the runtime to almost theatrical length, Netflix has also split this season up into two chunks, with seven episodes releasing as ‘volume 1’ and two more as ‘volume 2’ in July. But despite the delays and theatrics from the streaming service, it’s great to be heading back to Hawkins once again.
The series picks up six months since the deadly Battle of Starcourt, which brought terror and destruction to Hawkins. Struggling with the aftermath, the gang are separated for the first time following the Byers’ move to California – and navigating the complexities of high school hasn’t made things any easier. But when a new supernatural threat begins to gruesomely murder students from Hawkins High, the gang are brought back together to fight the new force – before time runs out.
While the Duffer brothers have always struck a fine line between a Stand By Me inspired coming-of-age tale and science fiction thriller – complete with dungeons and dragons, demogorgons and mind flayers – season four is undoubtedly their darkest, most grown-up season yet. With a string of incredibly brutal and disturbing deaths afflicting Hawkins’ teenagers, the gang once again find themselves investigating the supernatural force behind the murders. While this may sound like the writers are simply re-treading old ground, it quickly becomes apparent that there’s a distinct shift in tone with the addition of creepy body horror and tense haunted house elements following the introduction of new villain Vecna. There’s clear inspiration from Halloween, Nightmare on Elm Street and even Carrie, which makes for an exciting and often terrifying new direction.
While Netflix and the creative team have been met with criticism over with the extended episode runtimes, I didn’t ever find myself checking the time while watching. Each episode feels like a real cinematic treat thanks to an expansive and emotional central narrative, with the Duffer Brothers delving into compelling threads such as trauma linked to the horrors of the Upside Down, unravelling steadily throughout. If there’s one element which doesn’t work quite so well is splitting the expanded ensemble across a number of locations (Hawkins, California and Russia) due to the fragmented storylines. Some are far more compelling than others – and while it’s fantastic to see him again – Hopper’s thread feels unnecessary and entirely separate from the others, often leaving you wanting to get back to Hawkins.
Episode four (titled “Dear Billy“) is the standout instalment so far thanks to the absolutely phenomenal performance from Sadie Sink as the tormented and guilt-ridden Max – paired with Shawn Levy’s impressive direction – culminating in one of the most emotionally charged sequences yet. This episode will have you listening to Kate Bush’s “Running up that Hill” on repeat, trust me! Don’t worry though, the darkness is balanced with the gang’s Scooby Doo-esque antics, along with a brilliantly fun Dungeons and Dragons boss battle scene.
While (surprisingly) there’s not a huge amount of time afforded to character development due to the numerous threads juggled throughout, each of the core cast members commits to an energetic and emotionally charged performance throughout. As previously mentioned, Sadie Sink’s turn as Max is one of the real showstopping highlights of the season, and it’s great to see more from Brett Gelman’s Murray Bauman paired with Winona Ryder’s loveably quirk Joyce, along with another brilliantly fun appearance from Priah Ferguson’s Erica Sinclair. New antagonist Vecna is one of the show’s most terrifying and compelling monsters yet, with a power that’s particularly haunting and gnarly. Just who is he and what are his plans for the residents of Hawkins?!
It’s hard to deny that Stranger Things is one of the most cinematic pieces of television yet, and season four is no different. You’re instantly immersed back into the beloved universe with a surprisingly shocking flashback, which does a great job of establishing the darker tone. This instalment is bold, bloody and full of body horror – with Vecna capturing his targets by manipulating their very worst nightmares – with twisted visions and repeated clock motifs. The horror elements are extremely well realised, paired with impressive visual effects bringing the new big bad (and his creepy spider-like companions) – along with the striking visuals of the Upside Down – to life. Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein also return with their iconic and hugely atmospheric 80s inspired synth, adding a layer of tension to these sequences.
Stranger Things Season 4 Volume 1 is the most ambitious, suspenseful and bloody instalment of the sci-fi horror yet from the Duffer brothers. While the large ensemble and multi-thread narrative does feel a little fractured at times, the darker delve into emotionally charged horror makes for a fascinating and highly gripping watch.