Stranger Things returns to Netflix with a fourth season. Doubling – er, quadrupling – down on the Dungeons & Dragons motif, episode one takes its name from the high school D&D group Dustin and Mike have joined. Thematically, hellfire also serves to describe the general devilry at work in Hawkins. While the Upside Down is still at the core of the story, seemingly absent are the more fantastical monsters of Mind Flayers and Demogorgons; so far we’re presented with a more intimate – and personal – evil that promises to haunt our dreams.
Director: Matt Duffer, Ross Duffer
Writers: Matt Duffer, Ross Duffer, Caitlin Schneiderhan
Runtime: 75 minutes
US Release: May 27, 2022; Netflix
After three seasons of increasing scale, the Duffer Brothers present a more down-to-earth installment; not only do audiences need to catch their breath but the characters themselves need a break. As established early in “The Hellfire Club”, each character is reeling from the traumatic events at the Starcourt Mall. Mike (Finn Wolfhard) and Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) bury their heads in D&D escapism; Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) leaves the fold for the long-sought popularity of the basketball team; Max (Sadie Sink) struggles with the violent death of Billy; and Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) and Will (Noah Schnapp) are social outcasts at their new southern California school. Meanwhile, season three cliffhangers resume with Joyce (Winona Ryder) and Murray (Brett Gelman) discovering Hopper is imprisoned in Siberia; Nancy (Natalia Dyer) honing her journalist chops; and Steven (Joe Keery) and Robin (Maya Hawke) humorously swapping Schoops Ahoy uniforms for those of a Family Video.
As an introduction to the new world of season four, “Hellfire Club”, provides a strong foundation. Despite the large ensemble, there is adequate investment in each character; likewise the various plotlines maintain distinct identities. With a show like Stranger Things it is always nice to see returning faces as we welcome newcomers into the gang. The sympathetic rogue, Eddie Munson (Joseph Quinn) is a particular standout, striking a satisfying rapport with the returning Erica Sinclair (Priah Ferguson).
The most memorable character, of course, is this season’s antagonist: a demonic, skinless humanoid. Unnamed until episode two (we’ll get there!), it is another creature of the Upside Down. This figure, however, is more sentient than its more monstrous cousins and possesses more omnipresent abilities. Throughout the episode it displays its haunting power to stalk a mixed-up cheerleader in her subconscious. The girl is ultimately possessed by the creature and killed in gruesome fashion; all while a horrified Eddie looks on powerless to help. While reminiscent of A Nightmare on Elm Street, the mythos behind this new monster rests on the preceding seasons, thus maintaining an air of originality.
“The Hellfire Club” kicks the season off with a smaller bang than you may anticipate, but it’s explosive nonetheless. Just when you thought the Duffer Brothers had mined Hawkins for all its supernatural gold, they treat you with one more nugget. Twists and familiar favorites abound in chapter one. Let’s see how it unfolds from here.
by Vincent S. Hannam