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This story was created in paid partnership with Netflix
When Matt and Ross Duffer were the same age as the youthful protagonists in their blockbuster series Stranger Things, the identical twin brothers were obsessed with moviemaking. All their free time was spent watching classic films or bringing life to their own stories, some of which starred their friends, or even the brothers themselves.
Channeling those formative experiences, both good and bad, into Stranger Things helped the Duffer Brothers bring truthfulness to their sci-fi inflected coming-of-age tale about an endearing group of outsiders from fictional Hawkins, Indiana. That strain of relatable realism — along with a nail-biting narrative, indelible performances from a top-flight ensemble cast, and a slew of 1980s pop culture references — transformed the series into a full-blown obsession within days of its July 2016 debut.
Unlike so many overnight sensations, the Duffer Brothers’ brainchild has retained its hold on the cultural imagination, thanks in part to the brothers re-inventing the series with each new season.
For Stranger Things 4, which returned with Vol. 1 and 2 this summer and became one of the most watched English-language series on Netflix, the writer-directors fully embraced the horror genre with a storyline that’s part Satanic panic, part A Nightmare on Elm Street. “What we’re trying not to do is repeat ourselves too much,” says Ross Duffer. “If we look back at our favorite movie sequels, whether it’s Aliens or The Empire Strikes Back, the greatest movie sequels always change it up, so that’s what we’ve been trying to do each season.”
Season 4 of Stranger Things begins six months since the Battle of Starcourt, which brought terror and destruction to Hawkins. Struggling with the aftermath, our group of friends are separated for the first time – and navigating the complexities of high school hasn’t made things any easier. In this most vulnerable time, a new and horrifying supernatural threat surfaces, presenting a gruesome mystery that, if solved, might finally put an end to the horrors of the Upside Down.
As they developed the new season, the Duffer Brothers knew they wanted to take the supernatural drama in a slightly more adult direction — that meant giving their teenage protagonists the chance to face off against a truly terrifying foe, inspired in part by slasher movie icons from the 1980s. “They’re not kids anymore,” Matt Duffer says. “That’s why this season we leaned more into horror. We figured they should be in their own [version] of A Nightmare on Elm Street, basically.” Ross Duffer agrees, “The tone is different.”
“They really are full-blown teenagers,” adds Matt Duffer. “To me, high school is dark. That’s when a lot of teenagers are dealing with real emotional issues, anxiety, depression. We wanted to tackle all of that and have this supernatural threat represent that. High school naturally lent itself to what is — without question — the darkest season yet.”
Enter Vecna, the sadistic soul collector who wields immense psychic power and bears a surprisingly strong connection to Millie Bobby Brown’s heroic Eleven. Compellingly played beneath layers of prosthetic makeup by English actor Jamie Campbell Bower, the lethal villain caused more than a few sleepless nights for Stranger Things’s award-winning behind-the-scenes team. Prosthetics designer Barrie Gower was tasked with conjuring Vecna’s sinister appearance – and won an Emmy for his efforts. Production designer Chris Trujillo created his eerie lair.
Gower and Trujillo worked in concert with visual effects supervisor Michael Maher Jr. and his team, who augmented their efforts while tackling countless ambitious sequences — from the disturbing flashbacks depicting Eleven’s time in Hawkins National Laboratory to the harrowing scenes of Vecna claiming his victims. Craig Henighan, the show’s Emmy-winning supervising sound editor and re-recording mixer, enhanced those gruesome moments further with chilling, bone-shattering sounds. “The scope of this season was basically double what it was in past seasons,” Henighan says. “There was a lot of ground to cover.”
Vecna and his lair also play a key role in one of the season’s most emotional moments that was further amplified by a song that had a reach far beyond the show itself. Music supervisor Nora Felder was tasked with finding the perfect song that saves Sadie Sink’s Max from being trapped in Venca’s Mind Lair. Kate Bush’s ‘80s hit “Running Up That Hill” not only served the needs of the episode perfectly – it won Felder an Emmy and also made history. The 30-year-old song topped the charts, became the song of the summer and brought Kate Bush a new generation of fans.
Stranger Things will come to a close with its fifth and final season. Matt Duffer explains, “We don’t want to do this past the point of running out of story to tell. We still have a ton left, and we’re going to leave and be upset that we’re leaving it. But I think that’s the right place to leave.”
Ross Duffer concludes, “it’ll be an emotional journey. It’s been a long journey for all of us, and we’ve all been in it together.”
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