Stranger Things, the retro scfi/mystery series on Netflix, is the hit of the 2016 summer season, generating buzz and discussion galore, reinvigorating the career of Winona Ryder, and bringing writer/directors the Duffer Brothers to prominence. Among other things the eight-episode show is a spot-on compendium of ’80s popular culture with clever homages to Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, John Carpenter, Stephen King, and many others.
Young (born 1984), twin (Matt and Ross) upstarts, the Duffer Brothers seem to have come out of nowhere, but of course they didn’t. The Duffer Brothers began making films in 3rd grade, and not long after they graduated from film school, they had written and signed on to direct virus-apocalypse horror/thriller Hidden for Warner Brothers. Hidden cleverly and with deep empathy takes the familiar zombie apocalypse survivor scenario and flips it on its head, calling into question all of our usual preconceptions about good guys, bad guys and the ethics of survival.
Hidden is set in a well-stocked but claustrophobic fallout shelter, with a powerfully played family of three — father Alexander Skarsgård (True Blood, The Legend of Tarzan), mother Andrea Riseborough (Birdman, Oblivion), and young daughter Emily Alyn Lind (The Haunting in Connecticut 2) — as they try to outlast the unnamed horrors let loose in the world overhead. We catch glimpses of red-eyed humanoid figures and hear their labored respiration and eventually learn that Zoe, the young girl, calls them “breathers.” We also come to realize how disciplined the family must be to maintain their focus and composure and to make their supplies last as long as possible. The calm and loving father reiterates to Zoe that each day of life is a “miracle.”
The family also has four ironclad rules: 1. Never be loud, 2. Never lose control, 3. Never open the door. 4. Never talk about the “breathers.”
Disaster strikes at the 301-day mark when first the family realizes that their food supplies have been compromised by a rat, and in the clamor to kill the rat, a lantern gets knocked over and their their dinner table catches fire, smoking out the shelter and leaving tell-tale ashes outside the escape hatch on the street above. Through flashbacks we learn how the outbreak unfolded and how the family ended up in the shelter. We also learn the true nature of the breathers and learn that the four rules have urgent meaning beyond common sense.
In these kind of apocalyptic scenarios, the government is either shown to be selflessly heroic or treacherously Machiavellian – Hidden leans strongly toward the latter. As the breathers close in and the action turns swift and vicious we are jolted into the macro reality of our plucky little micro family’s world, and the film comes to an emotionally wrenching but ultimately hopeful ending.
The deft writing, pacing, editing, and acting all belie the brothers’ youth, and drew the attention of M. Night Shyamalan, who brought them on to write for season one of Wayward Pines, which in turn led to Stranger Things. The sky, or at least the bunker hatch, would appear to be the limit for the Duffer Brothers.