Stranger Things isn't strange enough to be interesting, and it's not cohesive enough to be good. After a month of watching friends and colleagues fawn over Netflix's latest "original" show, I'm relieved to cite an example of what people think they're watching when they watch Stranger Things.
Two examples, actually. The first is some rather unsettling video of zombie parasites evacuating a dying praying mantis. We'll come back to this in a bit.
The second is Nikias Chryssos' black sci-fi comedy of manners, Der Bunker. Recent films like Room and 10 Cloverfield Lane played on the claustrophobia and the deleterious effects of captives held underground, sometimes for years. Der Bunker asks us to consider how fast we'd run for the open door if the only thing standing in our way was...well, us. At what point do politeness and the fear of giving offense hamper our instincts for self-preservation--socially, physically, and/or spiritually?
Pit Bukowski stars as a young, introverted German student (referred to only as "Student") who rents a room for the winter, in a house that's been dug into the deepest part of the woods. His Higgs particle research requires absolute quiet and concentration, and landlords Father (David Scheller) and Mother (Oona von Maydell) just happen to have a windowless concrete bunker that they're eager to let out. Father--a lanky, jovial, and needy man--also fancies himself a scholar, and offers to collaborate with Student, should he ever need the help of a fellow quantum mechanic.
At dinner the first night, Student meets the house's third full-time occupant. Eight-year-old Klaus (Daniel Fripan) stumbles out of his room and part way into the kitchen, complaining that he can't sleep. Student has his back to the boy, who only appears as a diminutive shadow in the doorway. Whatever impulse might have compelled Student to turn around is cut short by Klaus' voice: the words are sufficiently juvenlie, but he sounds like a thirty-year-old man. Mother helps Klaus back to bed. Student resumes munching on Mother's dumplings. Father quietly counts the number of dumplings Student has eaten.*
Through manipulations subtle and not, Father and Mother convince Student to divide his time between scientific research and tutoring their son. Mother is dissatisfied with Father's home-schooling efforts, and is determined to give Klaus the one-on-one quality training he'll need in order to one day become President of the United States. It's destiny, you see, so says the alien overlord who lives in a bubbling pustule on Mother's leg.
You're right, I should stop before this gets weird.
I should also clarify that Der Bunker is not what the layperson might call an artsy-fartsy German film that's different for the sake of being different. The set decoration is unsettling, the costumes are bizarre, and the story piles layer upon layer of mystery. Yet Chryssos explains everything that needs explaining, leaves some elements in question, and made me believe that he had a plan for everything--even if he had no intention of revealing certain parts of that plan to me. Does it matter whether or not Klaus is actually a child? Not really. Does it matter that we understand (and support) Student's decision to stay on as Klaus' teacher, long after it has been made clear just how mad this madhouse is? Absolutely, and Chryssos makes quite a case.
I didn't buy all of what the writer/director was selling: he could have dropped the Barker-esque detail about Student and Mother's eventual affair--especially since the alien (whose name is Heinrich) offered Student far greater enticements than drafting-table nooky. And Student's fate is, sadly, Twilight Zone-predictable.
Those quibbles aside, I really took to the odd dynamic between Student and Klaus. Klaus is, perhaps, an irredeemably dim bulb, but Student plows through their mutual awkwardness and fear of the parents to discover a pure soul trapped in a creepy body. This bond was even more impressive to me since I'd only ever seen Bukowski play the titular silent killer in Der Samurai.
With its video cover image of Klaus bent comically over Father's knee, about to receive a savage sjambokking, Der Bunker is being marketed as a sort of edgy, mod-cult curiosity. This was also, arguably, the draw of Stranger Things, a show whose title promises stranger things than other shows of its ilk. It delivers instead a technically perfect and imaginatively bankrupt montage of everything genre junkies have seen before. From the font and score of the series' opening title sequence to the scene-by-scene swipes of nearly every beloved (or at least heavily referenced) sci-fi movie of the last forty-plus years, the note-perfect recreations of old properties cannot be dismissed.
But series creators The Duffer Brothers don't do the truly daunting and important work of connecting Firestarter references to visual motifs from Under the Skin to themes in Stephen King's It--work that would have made Stranger Things a memorable and unpredictable slice of science fiction, rather than geek** catnip and a charismatic Cliff's Notes for millennials who would never deign to watch the "old movies" from which the Duffers so liberally and unabashadly cribbed. Stranger Things uses layers-thick nostalgia to wrap an empty mystery box.
This is my labored and very round-about way of saying that if you think Stranger Things is truly strange, you may want to take a pass on Der Bunker. If watching someone spit a slug into their bathroom sink is the height of "Don't Even Go There" for you, Nikias Chryssos is definitely not your guy. If, however, you can A) watch organisms tear themselves away from a host body that is somehow less than half their collective size, and not be creeped out (and, in fact, want to know more about the truly bizarre possibilities our harsh and inexplicable universe has to offer);*** and B) believe that an eighty-minute art film featuring a bronze vagina lamp can offer more tenderness, suspense, and insight than eight hours of gooey, Spielberg fanfic--by all means, venture down into Der Bunker.
Tell Heinrich I said "Hi."
*Two. He's also on his third napkin.
**If this isn't yet a thing, allow me to introduce the Geek Properties Paradox: On one hand, pop-culture obsessives have, to a large extent, embraced Stranger Things as a show that perfectly captures (i.e. replicates) everything they loved about the movies of their youth. Yet these same nerds (a term used here with self-identifying affection) are the first to decry Hollywood's calculated reliance on remakes and sequels to successful "brands" from decades past. How can one angrily pound the keyboard with cries of, "How DARE they remake Poltergeist?! Are they THAT out of ideas??!!!" and then sing The Duffer Brothers' praises from the virtual mountaintops ("OMG!!! I loooove this show! It's just like Poltergeist!")?
***This happens in the praying mantis video referenced at the head of this piece, not in Der Bunker.