Steven Spielberg

A Font of Horror: Stranger Things

The type is called Benguiat. It's the font of my childhood, big and mysterious and curving in a way that suggests the edge of something sharp, something dangerous. Something we, as children, should not be handling. Viking used it, in part, to make Stephen King's name iconic on their covers, though most would agree (myself included) that King himself did the real carving out, cutting his name into our imaginations like a mad-skilled butcher -- but not with Benguiat, no; he did it with the dull, spoon-like edges of an Underwood's Courier-shaped keys. And in this way, the Duffer Brothers' Stranger Things affects us. It entices us with a font, makes us remember a very specific set of iconography, then draws us into something far deeper, far richer: a collective well of imagination.

The pitch is easy to imagine. It's Stephen King meets Steven Spielberg, the ultimate campaign: boys on bikes and a telekinetic girl battle monsters from another dimension. The execution, of course, could have been terrible. Nothing sits so uneasily as half-baked nostalgia that doesn't pay off. Super 8 is testimony enough to that. It tried. It wanted us to believe. It struck out in the last inning, gave us a monster that couldn't live up to its forebear in the great white shark from Jaws. The glorious thing about Stranger Things is that it seems to understand this danger throughout, and it negotiates the inherent pitfalls with wit, grace, and masterful storytelling. It's an eight-hour campaign that never flags, a novel that never disappoints; both keep you up late into the night. Catching references to Goonies, E.T.Alien, Aliens, The Thing, Stand by Me, Carrie, Cujo, It, Firestarter, The Stand, Silver BulletNightmare on Elm Street, Halloween, Poltergeist, Rambo: First Blood Part II, The Breakfast ClubJaws, Gremlins, or even Tobe Hooper's re-make of Invaders from Mars is only half the fun. The rest is in how these things all seem at once familiar and new, like how old artifacts stuffed in boxes become treasured memories you'd forgotten.

It's the Upside-Down, as the Duffers call it: that place that's like our world but not, the Vale of Shadows -- the place we escape to, are dragged to, and, upon waking, hopefully return from. It's a post-modern technique that's less critique and more compliment, suggesting that modern American horror stems now from not only a shared or collective unconsciousness but a pop-cultural unconsciousness. It's a fantastic conceit, one I see bearing fruit in the works of a whole new slew of great horror writers, among them Joe Hill, Nick Cutter, Paul Tremblay, Christopher Buehlman, and Stephen Graham Jones. It's almost as if the Duffer Brothers have re-opened a mainstream gateway to horror, at a time when a few of us were already wandering into the woods again anyway -- in part, I imagine, because the evils of our present dimension have become so commonplace and frequent that we tend to overlook those monsters that have always lurked in the periphery. No Eater of Worlds likes to go unnoticed.

My favorite image in the series is a baby's crib topped off by a mobile of clowns. It's a visual metaphor for so much in the series and in the genre. It suggests that horror is the stuff of childhood dreams from the very beginning, that we're shaped by it almost immediately after exiting the womb, whether we want to be or not. It's always present. It suggests that adults are oblivious to the monstrous nature of what they impose on innocence. It suggests that terror hangs over us when we're least expecting, least equipped. And, of course, in a very literal way, I guess, it (or It) suggests that, well, clowns float.

And we all know how that one goes, don't we. Say it with me, friends: "We all float down here...."

"Shark!" - Thoughts on JAWS Turning 35

"Sometimes that shark, he looks right into you. Right into your eyes. You know the thing about a shark, he's got lifeless eyes, black eyes, like a doll's eye. When he comes at ya, doesn't seem to be livin. Until he bites ya and those black eyes roll over white. And then, ah, then you hear that terrible high pitch screamin and the ocean turns red and spite of all the poundin and the hollerin they all come in and rip you to pieces."

"Sometimes that shark, he looks right into you. Right into your eyes. You know the thing about a shark, he's got lifeless eyes, black eyes, like a doll's eye. When he comes at ya, doesn't seem to be livin. Until he bites ya and those black eyes roll over white. And then, ah, then you hear that terrible high pitch screamin and the ocean turns red and spite of all the poundin and the hollerin they all come in and rip you to pieces."

Written by Peter Benchley and Carl Gottlieb. From the novel by Peter Benchley. Directed by Steven Spielberg. 1975.

In the first ten minutes of JAWS, Mayor Vaughn strong-arms Chief Brody into keeping mum about a girl killed by "probable shark attack" in the waters off Amity Island. His oily reasoning runs so: "You yell barracuda, everybody says, 'Huh, what?' You yell shark...and we've got a panic on our hands on the Fourth of July."

Lately, when I've told people that JAWS is -- and has always been -- my favorite movie, I've felt a lot like the guy yelling 'barracuda.' "Really?" people say, and cock their heads. "Huh." My wife tells me it's because people don't remember how good it is. They remember the movie, sure: the mechanical shark that sank to the ocean floor when the crew submerged it for the first time, the sharp decline in beach attendance in the summer of 1975, the famous line Brody utters upon first seeing the title character (everyone say it with me: "You're gonna need a bigger boat"). Lost in the fog of too few screenings, however, is what everyone's forgotten: like The Godfather or Star Wars or Casablanca or Gone With the Wind, JAWS remains one of the greatest of American movies.

I should point out how I intend the word "great" here: in the truest sense of the word, as in larger than others of its kind, remarkable, and important. Crystal and I were fortunate enough to happen upon a 35th anniversary screening at the Fox theater in Atlanta this past weekend. I'd never seen a theatrical print of the film before, so I suspected that to sit in the dark for two hours and see it projected wide and grainy and larger-than-life would be an experience akin to epiphany. It didn't disappoint.

Films like JAWS -- and there are so very few, perhaps not even one, when it comes down to it -- demand theatrical viewing if only because their scope cannot be contained. Spielberg utilizes a wide screen to its fullest potential, with foreground and background elements occupying extreme positions for maximum emotional effect: the chief's point-of-view shot past the head of a pestering city councilman, for example, his eyes -- and our eyes -- on a girl screaming in the water. Disparate images, the gulf between them emphasizing Brody's disconnection from the more mundane aspects of his job (why does a police chief have to get drunk and rail about the pressures of being a cop in crime-ridden New York when the simple political spaces one has to negotiate in small-town life seem so much less dangerous?). Nuances abound in this very large movie.

Something else: JAWS, like Star Wars, is a product of its director's youth and audacity. Spielberg hasn't really made great movies since the eighties. When asked by a college student whether studio support by way of millions of dollars in cash to fund his pictures might have hampered his artistic development, the late great Orson Welles famously replied: "No." Maybe that was true for Orson, a director who was never really less than successful even in abject failure. But for Spielberg the hunger kept him moving, much like the titular shark; sharks sink if they stop. Spielberg stopped being hungry sometime after Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, his (and Lucas's) last movie born out of discontent, restlessness, and urgency.

I think I love JAWS most because it's virtually every arch-story the screen can hold: a stranger in a strange land ("Martin sits in his car on the ferry to the mainland..."), the ties of love and family ("Give us a kiss...because I need it"), a tale of friendship ("Why don't we have one more drink and sit down and cut that shark open?"), and a tale of pirates ("I'll never put on a life jacket again..."). It exploits the primal terror that lurks in all of us and somehow buoys the child in each of us.

I first saw the movie on television when I was six. There was a time -- I don't know if it's still the case, as I haven't subscribed to TV in almost a decade now -- when TBS ran JAWS once or twice a year. I recorded it and wore the tape out re-watching it. It wasn't until high school that I got my hands on the unedited film and saw, for the first time, a man's severed leg sinking to the bottom of the estuary, knotty and blossoming red. What violence it lacked the TV version famously made up for with scenes not in the theatrical release, like a little eccentricity of character, which serves to endear Quint (or is it to depict him as the madman he is?): he torments a young boy playing clarinet in a store.

JAWS is also a great movie, of course, because of what it did for the summer release schedule and the box office. Some might argue in this age of Michael Bay, well, that's no great legacy, but that would be unfair. Besides, in JAWS there is no blame to assign, only praise and fond memories. Cinematically speaking, it's a technical marvel and a milestone, a revolutionary work. A tough movie to make, and whenever I hear Spielberg weigh the challenges of making JAWS against the rewards -- "When I think of JAWS, I think of courage and stupidity," he has said -- I can't help feeling a surge of optimism regarding the infinite possibilities of popcorn movies.

JAWS is a great movie because it made me, a kid who hadn't seen very many movies yet, fall in love with the art form for reasons I couldn't articulate at six. I could only sit in front of the TV and gasp. It occurred to me, between similar gasps last weekend in the Fox, that had I been born a decade earlier, had I seen JAWS on the silver screen in the summer of 1975, my life might have turned out very differently. I might have been living in Hollywood today, trying my damnedest to direct movies. I like to think, though, that in the more intimate setting of my living room floor in 1984, from the moment the great white broke the water (and Quint's boat), I would forever be making movies -- and crying "Shark!" -- in my heart.