Thursday, March 13, 2014

STRANGE BEHAVIOR aka DEAD KIDS (1981) Blu-ray review

Strange Behavior (aka Dead Kids) (1981) d. Michael Laughlin (Australia)

A most peculiar bloody little treat from Down Under (although shot mostly in New Zealand), featuring a surprisingly prestigious cast, a funky script co-written by future Oscar winner Bill Condon (Gods and Monsters, Chicago) and director Michael Laughlin. Something mysterious is taking place within the small town of Galesburg, IL, where cash-strapped high school students are invited to serve as test subjects for experiments going on at the local college. Rather than rashes or mood swings, however, the unexpected side effects in this case include gashing, slashing, and murder.

The marvelous (and perhaps overqualified) cast is led by Michael Murphy, terrific as Galesburg sheriff John Brady, so haunted by the tragic death of his wife 10 years prior that he cannot respond to the warm companionship offered by past-her-prime waitress Barbara (Louise Fletcher, who took the role as a favor to longtime friend Laughlin). Instead, he lives out his muted days keeping order within his little burg and encouraging his son Pete (Dan Shor) to move up in life and out of town.

But that all changes when Pete, along with best pal Oliver (Marc McClure, “Jimmy Olsen” in the Christopher Reeve Superman films) and romantic interest Caroline (Dey Young, Rock ‘n’ Roll High School), find themselves caught up in the bizarre happenings, used as instruments of destruction against peers and parents alike.

The villains of the piece are Drs. Parkinson (Fiona Lewis) and the long-deceased LeSange (Arthur Dignam), the latter still giving ominous lectures on mind control via videotape from beyond the grave. Hollywood veterans Charles Lane and Scott Brady lend able support as Murphy’s assistant and a calloused Chicago cop, respectively.

Strange Behavior’s plot is pure 1950s mad scientist stuff filtered through an ’80s slasher lens, but the most singular assets are its off-kilter pacing and trading off scenes of vicious bloodletting with those of the idealized banality of small-town characters and activities.

A prime example is the entertaining party scene where a room full of costumed teens pogo and cavort to Lou Christie’s great “Lightnin’ Strikes” tune; though explicitly bizarre and artificial, the buoyant mood thwarts viewer expectations and shifts mindsets, such that we know not what to expect next (which is, of course, a Tor Johnson-masked killer descending upon two young lovers necking in a car).

It’s also worth noting Laughlin’s use of lengthy, unbroken takes, especially within a genre setting, which accounts for the film’s notably offbeat pacing. Laughlin reportedly shot very economically, without a lot of coverage, following the lead of such masters as Alfred Hitchcock and John Ford. But when edits were required, the scissors were held by Bergman’s master cutter, Petra Von Oelffen (billed only as “Petra” in the credits).

No animals were brainwashed during the making of this film.

Transferred in HD from the original negative for the first time ever, Severin Films gives Behavior its Blu-ray upgrade in conjunction with two other Oxploitation classics produced by Antony I. Ginnane, Patrick and Thirst. The film, presented in all its widescreen glory, looks and sounds better than ever and the supplementary features are equally generous and pleasing. In addition to an isolated music track, whereby one can appreciate Tangerine Dream’s moody synthy score, there are two insightful audio commentary tracks to further enhance the viewer experience.

The first, recorded in 2003, features Condon, Shor, and Young reminiscing fondly over this early chapter in their careers, with a joking bent toward Shor’s early lothario tendencies and Laughlin’s love for Coca-Cola (cans of which are prominent in many shots). Condon, who also plays the first unfortunate onscreen victim, serves as the de facto moderator, with a stronger memory for production details and story origins than his thespian companions, although a slightly risky drinking game could be devised centering on how many wardrobe pieces from the film that Young claims she still owns.

Condon also points out that the U.S. title change was necessitated by the notorious spate of child murders in Atlanta from 1978 -1981. (It was released under its shooting title Dead Kids throughout the rest of the international market.)

The second track, recorded last year, has the irrepressible Laughlin chatting amiably about his directorial debut via Skype from his home in Honolulu. The Two Lane Blacktop producer proves to be thoroughly engaging, freely offering opinions about everything from casting, smoking, influencing film festival judges, and the convivial pleasures of international location shooting.

He also touches on his 1983 cult classic creature feature Strange Invaders, and the aborted follow-up, Dr. Strange, as well as his Hollywood social circle that included Linda Ronstadt, Gore Vidal, Warren Oates, and James Taylor. It should be noted that on neither track does anyone attempt to justify or even mention the missing door on the red jalopy, clearly removed for the shot.

“The Effects of Strange Behavior” is a terrific 20-minute conversation with FX wiz Craig Reardon (Dreamscape, Poltergeist, The Goonies, who talks about the crazy process of being gifted the gag gig from Tom Burman (The Beast Within, Cat People) and having to improvise several complicated effects mere hours after arriving from the U.S., including the iconic scene with Lewis plunging a syringe of glowing green liquid into Shor’s eye.

He also begrudgingly points out the string holding the blood tube tied around the actor’s finger during the forearm slicing climax.

Dead Kids (aka Strange Behavior) is available now from Severin Films on both Blu-ray and DVD, and can be ordered HERE.

--Aaron Christensen, HorrorHound Magazine

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