A Nightmare in Hawkins – Review of “Stranger Things 4” Episode One “The Hellfire Club”

Poster Art for “Stranger Things 4”. Source

The first half of Stranger Things Season 4 has dropped on Netflix and for the 80s kid in me, it is a welcome return to some nostalgia and horror. By the end of the first episode, titled “The Hellfire Club”, a terrifying new entity is introduced, evoking parallels to The Nightmare on Elm Street and It. There’s also a fair number of clues dropped that an old favorite is still alive but in much direr circumstances.

Spoilers ahead, so don’t read if you haven’t watched the first episode of Stranger Things 4.

First, if you haven’t watched any of Stranger Things, here’s a Wiki. My reviews are going to assume you as the reader have been watching this show up to this point, so I’m only going to recap previous seasons briefly to save space on these reviews.

Massive Trigger Warning for this review and the opening minutes of the first episode!

Before we even get to the current events that transpire over the season, we’re given a flashback to 1979, when the Hawkins Research Lab was still under the supervision of Doctor Brenner (a returning Matthew Modine). We see Brenner go through his morning routine before heading into the office to continue his psychic tests on children. Brenner is one of those villainous characters that is given just enough redeeming qualities to make the audience not hate him completely. An example here is the care and consideration he shows to one of the test subjects, Ten. While running through some remote viewing tests with Ten, the child begins to view another doctor at the facility with one of the other test subjects. It’s in that moment that everything goes off the rails, with screams being heard throughout the facility. Brenner is struck by a door flying off its hinges. When he comes to, he finds Ten and almost all of the other child subjects brutally murdered, along with several members of the Lab’s staff. He comes upon Eleven, blood seeping from her nose and eyes and looking murderous. It’s implied that Eleven massacred the other children and the staff but looks are deceiving.

Six months have passed since the Battle at StarCourt Mall that ended Stranger Things 3 and almost all of our main characters are in different places, both physically and emotionally. Eleven, Will Byers, Joyce Byers, and Jonathan Byers are living in sunny Lenora Hills, California. Joyce is trying to make a living as a telemarketer, Jonathan has taken up smoking pot, Will is still closed off but has taken up painting as a hobby, and Eleven is writing a letter to Mike back in Hawkins, filling it with obvious lies about how things are going in California.

Eleven is having to deal with the nasty side of high school, specifically bullying from her other female classmates, led by a stuck-up girl named Angela. You have to feel for Eleven at this point in her story. The young woman has undergone severe amounts of trauma at the hands of her initial father figure (Dr. Brenner), losing her other father figure (Jim Hopper), and being across the country from Mike and the others that have been her most stable family unit.

The first hint of that Jim Hopper is alive after the events of the StarCourt Mall fight arrives at Joyce’s doorstep in a package covered in Russian mail stamps. Inside, she finds a Russian porcelain doll. Once she manages to break it open (with the “assistance” of our old friend Murray Bauman, who makes a decidedly hilarious cameo here), she finds a patchwork note indicating Hopper is alive (which we know to be the case from the trailers for Stranger Things 4). It’s the first breadcrumb that our story this season is going to expand far beyond the boundaries of Hawkins, Indiana.

Speaking of Hawkins, the Party (Mike Wheeler, Dustin Henderson, Lucas Sinclair, and Max Mayfield) have undergone some major changes in the last six months. Lucas and Max, who were a couple in the previous season, have broken up. Max has not fully dealt with the trauma of losing her older stepbrother Billy Hargrove at the hands of the Mind Flayer, driving a rift between her and the rest of the group. Lucas as well finds himself on the outs with Mike and Dustin due to his commitment to the Hawkins High basketball team. Mike and Dustin (and Lucas based on the conversation) have found themselves part of a Dungeons & Dragons group called The Hellfire Club (and they even have their own t-shirts!) led by Eddie Munson (a metalhead/small-time drug dealer/aspiring musician) who fits the mold of the rebellious teenager that Billy Hargrove used to fill. Last but not least, we have Steve Harrington and Robin Buckley, who are still tight friends and constantly dragging on each other regarding their separate attempts at relationships.

The first episode of the season is slower-paced, allowing us as the audience to observe where everyone is and what’s changed. Max’s storyline hit home the most for me as someone who lives with depression. It’s clear that Billy’s death haunts Max and her mother (Max’s stepfather is out of the picture at this point). We see later on in the episode that Max and her mother are living in a run-down trailer park, with her mother drinking herself into a stupor. When Max was first introduced in Stranger Things 2, she was a vibrant kick in the ass to the Party, bringing a ton of attitude that was a welcome addition. In Stranger Things 4, that vibrancy is gone, replaced by a melancholy that Max can’t seem to address or perhaps doesn’t want to fully face. Trauma takes many forms and for a child like Max, navigating through it is one of the hardest things she’ll ever do.

The cracks forming in the foundation of the Party is best shown with Lucas, Dustin, and Mike. Lucas being on the basketball team is an attempt (and understandably so) for him to escape the moniker of nerd or freak, labels which Dustin and Mike are proud to wear. I can understand that Lucas wants to straddle the line between the two but when his team’s championship game falls on the same night as the end of the Dungeons & Dragons campaign run by Eddie, Lucas chooses to play in the game (and ends up hitting the game-winning shot) while Dustin and Mike recruit Lucas’ younger sister Erica (who reveals she is as much of a DnD nerd as her brother’s friends) to stand in for Lucas. The juxtaposition of Erica rolling a Natural 20 to defeat the monster in the campaign and Lucas hitting the game-winning shot was brilliant, since for both respective groups, it’s a big deal. But the look on Lucas’ face after the game when he sees everyone from the DnD game had a blast without him is heartbreaking.

But this wouldn’t be Stranger Things without some good, old-fashioned 1980s horror, now, would it?

One of the cheerleaders from the pep rally scene, Chrissy Cunningham, is experiencing strange occurrences. We see her in the bathroom of Hawkins High, throwing up (possibly a sign she’s a bulimic or just undergoing some severe stress), when voices start being heard calling her name and the bathroom stall’s door starts rattling violently. Later in the episode, Chrissy meets up with Eddie and we get to see a different side of the metalhead Dungeon Master. Underneath the intensity and middle-finger to the world attitude, Eddie comes off as a sweet, if slightly dim, guy. Chrissy tries to buy pot off but then asks for something stronger, which leads to Chrissy going with Eddie back to this trailer (in the same trailer park Max lives in) after the basketball game.

The New Big Bad of “Stranger Things”. Source

While in Eddie’s trailer (and during the part Eddie tries to find something stronger for her), Chrissy finds herself having a vision of a house filled with horrific images. She’s being stalked by an unseen presence calling her name. The imagery used in this sequence feels like a direct homage to A Nightmare on Elm Street and that connection goes even deeper when we see who is stalking Chrissy: a wicked-looking humanoid creature with long talons and fleshy, vine-like skin. This creature stands out as one of the more terrifying things Stranger Things has shown us over the life of the show (and that’s saying something considering the flesh monstrosity the Mind Flayer created in Stranger Things 3). As this new monster attacks, Chrissy is suspended in mid-air while Eddie watches on (another nod to the original A Nightmare on Elm Street) before she is thrown into the ceiling and begins to be broken into pieces. The sickening sounds of Chrissy’s limbs breaking and twisting in on themselves is pure nightmare fuel and those are the last images we are left with as the first episode closes.

One episode in and I’m intrigued by what Stranger Things 4 is offering. I wasn’t the biggest fan of Stranger Things 3, largely because some of the story arcs in the show felt thin (speaking mainly of the Russian arc, which made little sense to me). With “The Hellfire Club”, it feels like this is a return to form for the Duffer Brothers and Stranger Things.

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