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11 of the best sci-fi movies to watch if you love Stranger Things

Netflix stranger things season 4
(Image credit: Netflix)

It's fair to say that Stranger Things wears its influences on its 1980s sleeves. From the Duffer Brothers' love of Spielberg movies via Stephen King, to classic '80s sci-fi and horror, Stranger Things is brat-packed full of warm and fuzzy moments of 1980s nostalgia, (s)lashings of sci-fi horror tropes and a ton of teen friendship drama. 

We've picked eleven movies that influenced or have been influenced by the massively popular Netflix show. We could have gone on, but of course we just had to do Eleven, right?

Aside from what we have below, classic sci-fi anthologies such as The Twilight Zone and Amazing Stories, and perhaps the likes of Twin Peaks and M. Night Shyamalan's Wayward Pines (on which Matt and Ross Duffer cut their teeth as writers), would make this list, in an Upside Down kind of alternate reality at least. We could also have included more from the master of '80s sci-fi horror, John Carpenter too – especially since Austin band Survive's synth-heavy Stranger Things soundtrack reminds us of Carpenter's scores for his classic movies such as Halloween, Assault On Precinct 13 and Escape From New York

So, what do we know about Stranger Things Season 4? We know it's going to be darker, with the show maturing alongside both cast and fans, which hopefully means the scariest and craziest season yet. Other than that, we'll have to wait and see – hopefully the below list gives you enough to get your teeth into before Stranger Things launches this Friday.

The Thing (1982)

John Carpenter's 1982 Kurt Russell-starring horror looks likely to have its own doppelganger in Stranger Things Season 4. With Hopper alive and imprisoned in an isolated, snowbound part of Russia, could the Soviets have their own Demogorgon or Mind Flayer, ready to emerge from a frozen state and start taking over minds? 

The Thing itself is clearly an influence – one poor victim's transformation on being taken over by The Thing gives him some pretty Demogorgon like claws, while the 'Demodogs' of Season 2 are reminiscent of the Thing-transformed wolf dog at the Antarctic base. And we know the Duffers are fans. There's a poster on the Wheelers' basement wall, for starters, while the brothers are said to have been influenced to use old-school practical FX such as animatronics for their own creature-feature by Rob Bottin's work in bringing The Thing's shape-shifting horror to life. 

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ET: The Extra Terrestrial (1982)

Spielberg's Amblin movies form as much of Stranger Things' DNA as John Carpenter and Stephen King. We could have chosen Goonies (clearly a Duffer Brothers favourite, evidenced by the appearance of Sean Astin – aka Mikey in that film – as Bob in Season 2). ET though, with its central theme of kids versus men-in-black, is the one that Stranger Things most leans into, in terms of tone, direction and reference points. 

Eleven is the ET in Stranger Things; the scene in which Mike introduces her to his home, collectibles and everyday household products echoes the alien's bemused tour of Elliot's home. The Duffers even used clips from ET in their fake-trailer pitch, and the show was originally intended to open with the kids playing Dungeons & Dragons and eating pepperoni pizza, just like in ET. D&D and pizza still feature heavily, of course.

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The Blob (1988)

"Terror has no shape!" screamed the tagline to this 1988 B-movie remake. The plot doesn't have all that much shape either, but it's roughly this: Smalltown USA is menaced by a shapeshifting sticky mass of evil goo, as a fab, be-mulleted young Kevin Dillon tries to save said town from the gratuitous explosions in its wake. 

In Season 3 of Stranger Things, the Mind Flayer's spider-form is inspired by the monster in the 1958 original, as is the way the melted Tom/Bruce hybrid in Season 3 turns to goo, seeps through a vent and rebuilds itself. The 1988 version shares with Stranger Things the cold war paranoia that accompanies the evident government cover-up of The Blob's origins. Is The Blob an alien? Is it Russian? Has it been created by shady scientists in hazmat suits in a conveniently nearby top secret research facility, just like in Stranger Things? Couldn't it just be mopped up with a sheet of double-ply kitchen roll? 

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Firestarter (1984)

Remade and currently in cinemas, this Stephen King story features a young girl with devastatingly powerful psychic abilities pursued by government agencies who seek to control/exploit them. In the time-appropriate 1984 version, young Drew Barrymore starts fires with her mind – and when she does, she gets a nosebleed, just like Eleven when she lets rip. 

Stephen King's work exerts a huge pull on Stranger Things. Aside from the influences of It and Stand By Me (see below), Carrie and The Shining also feature kids who struggle with the discovery that they have extraordinary powers. By the way, the '80s movie is the one to go for; this year's Zac Efron-starring remake of Firestarter is getting reviews that are, shall we say, less than incandescent.

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It (2017)

Partially set in the 1980s (in a nostalgically framed childhood flashback that in King's original took place in the 1950s), a disparate group of nerdy teenagers form a gang called 'The Losers' and face a terrifying danger by sticking together, placing friendship first, and 'Scooby Doo-ing' stuff (much as the Stranger Things gang do). 

Instead of the Demogorgon, the threat to this particular Smalltown USA is a creature that can take on the form of people's biggest fears – in particular, terrifying clown Pennywise. This one's fantastic in Dolby Vision, thanks to some startlingly hyper-real visual touches, and its cleverly contrasting bright, sunny summer days with dark, subterranean nightmares.

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Stand By Me (1986)

Stephen King's influence on Stranger Things doesn't stop at horror. Stand By Me, adapted from King's novella The Body, showed the way for the Stranger Things teenage characters' interpersonal dynamics and subsequent emotional empathy. 

Matt Duffer told Variety, "We always wanted to keep the stakes high. When you’re looking back at Stand By Me, the stakes feel very real. The kids never feel completely safe, even though there is an element of fun and you love those boys." The Duffers had the show's young auditioning cast read Stand By Me's script, and they go on to homage River Phoenix and friends' iconic walk along the train tracks in the scene where Mike, Dustin, Lucas and Eleven search for the missing Will Byers.

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Fear Street (2021)

This Netflix trilogy of stabby teen horror does a fine job of taking us back to the days of VHS slasher movies (as does American Horror Story: 1984). Taking place not, for once, in the ’80s but in each of the years 1994, 1978 and 1666 – the latter year being the origin of a witch's curse on a small American town which has since been plagued by serial killers committing gory atrocities. 

Based on books by Goosebumps author R L Stine, Fear Street's stylised mix of Friday 13th horror and young adult themes – all taking place within loving recreations of '90s malls, video stores and ’70s summer camps, accompanied by (almost) era-correct music – makes it very nearly a companion series to Stranger Things. Particularly as it stars some of its cast, including Maya Hawke and Sadie Sink, the show's Robin and Max respectively.

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Weird Science (1985)

John Hughes' movies set the tone of the '80s, and very definitely colourise our memories of what it was actually like back then. Ozone-bothering amounts of hairspray and makeover montages aside, Hughes was also a master of teen archetypes that populated films such as this silly B-movie sci-fi comedy, plus of course The Breakfast Club, Pretty In Pink et al – and of which you can find plenty in Stranger Things. There's the jock (Steve), the popular girl (Nancy), the loner-rebel (Jonathan), the psycho big brother (Billy, who's also a kind of John Bender-type character), the 'basket case' (Max), the geek (everyone else)... need we go on?

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Summer of 84 (2018)

Cool synthwave score? Check. Retro T-shirts? Check. Teenage friends bonding together to unravel a mystery? Check. This 2018 movie trades heavily on '80s nostalgia to add a layer of sheen to a well-trodden plot: what if your neighbour was a serial killer? Someone has been murdering teenagers in a small town and the kids suspect the cop next door, played by Mad Men's Rich Sommer, who puts in a great turn as the polite but creepy loner whose odd behaviour has the kids by turns obsessed and scared witless. Cue lots of creeping around his house and digging up his backyard, à la Rear Window, to get the evidence that proves their suspicions are correct, as the suspense builds through a combination of voyeuristic perspective and the aforementioned synth score.

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Alien 3 (1992)

The 1979 space horror Alien, and its iconic design by Swiss surrealist HR Giger, influenced the look of Stranger Things’ Upside Down. There are nods to the Alien series throughout the show, from its cast (Aliens' Paul Reiser and Alien Resurrection's Winona Ryder) to certain characteristics of the monsters' design and movement. 

Alien 3, meanwhile, looks like it will be a huge influence in Season 4 – in that movie, the Alien runs amok in an isolated prison, much like the Russian one in which Hopper is interned. Incidentally, the daft, schlocky, Roger Corman-produced Alien-cash-in Forbidden World (1982) is another one worth checking out, especially as its own, gooier alien has even more in common with the monsters of Stranger Things.

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Super 8 (2011)

Spielberg brought his Amblin style to this 2011 monster movie as producer, with JJ Abrams directing. Set in 1978, a group of teenage friends are filming their own zombie movie on a Super 8 camera when they accidentally film a train wreck – one that results in a real monster escaping the train and subsequently causing carnage in the small Iowa town. It's big on nostalgia, special effects and teenage relationships, with some evident influences on the Duffer Brothers' direction too, such as the Stranger Things scene in which the characters hide out in an abandoned bus while the Demodogs attack, which imitates Super 8's alien attack on a bus-load of kids.

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Chris Burke

Chris is What Hi-Fi?'s Production Editor. He has 25 years under his belt as an online and print magazine journalist, editing and writing about music, film, sport, video games and more. Having started his career at the NME, he spent 10 years on staff at legendary lad's mag Loaded, and has since been Editor of Rhythm and Official Xbox magazines.