There’s a good chance you might have overlooked this weird little horror hybrid; it got a bit more love outside the US (under the wonky title DEAD KIDS), but saw very little exposure stateside.
Released at the peak of the slasher genre’s Golden Age, this bizarre fusion of teen body-count horror and mad science shenanigans is the first chapter in the never-completed “Strange Trilogy” from writer-director Michael Laughlin.
The planned film series — which stalled out after the mediocre box-office returns of Laughlin’s big-budget 1983 follow-up, STRANGE INVADERS — was an ambitious attempt to blend gory 1980s horror tropes with vintage pulp sci-fi tales, all set against the backdrop of a storybook 1950s America. Sadly, we will never know how the third film in the series might have turned out, as Laughlin has since retired from the movie business.
The story involves a series of shockingly brutal teen murders in the idyllic, sleepy suburb of Galesburg, Illinois (actually shot in New Zealand), where police detective John Brady (Michael Murphy, who played a similar role in SHOCKER) had previously investigated the sketchy practices of a creepy college professor named LeSange (Arthur Dignam).
LeSange is thought to be long dead, but continues to instruct new students via an archive of pre-recorded lectures (a creepy twist David Cronenberg adopted for VIDEODROME the following year), and his scientific work is still being conducted by classic femme fatale Dr. Parkinson (Fiona Lewis, THE FURY).
The murders lead Parkinson and Brady to suspect LeSange is still alive, and may be part of a revenge plot against those who threatened to expose the mad doc’s secret experiments — which happen to involve Brady’s teenage son Peter (Dan Shor, TRON).
While the description sounds like the premise for a pretty wild and twisted tale, STRANGE BEHAVIOR is surprisingly restrained and talky, despite some jaw-droppingly weird moments — including a spontaneous dance number that weirdly foreshadows the closing credits sequence of David Lynch’s INLAND EMPIRE. When it does get down to horror business, however, the film certainly delivers some grotesque set-pieces… especially if you’re touchy about eyeball abuse.
The pulsing, moody score by electronic music pioneers Tangerine Dream (THE KEEP, NEAR DARK), minimalist production design, a slightly skewed portrayal of vintage Americana (thanks to some distinctly non-American locations) and weird little touches like the killer’s Tor Johnson Halloween mask all help to sustain an otherworldly, dreamlike atmosphere.
Most US horror fans first encountered STRANGE BEHAVIOR via Columbia’s poor pan-and-scan home video release in 1983, but it’s recently received a solid HD restoration (under the DEAD KIDS title) by Severin Films. The restored print highlights excellent widescreen compositions from Laughlin and cinematographer Louis Horvath, and the disc extras include the isolated Tangerine Dream score — which, as far as I know, has never been officially released.
Trivia: Bill Condon, Laughlin’s co-writer on STRANGE BEHAVIOR and STRANGE INVADERS, went on to enormous success in the industry, winning a Best Director Oscar in 1999 for GODS AND MONSTERS — a critically-acclaimed bio of FRANKENSTEIN director James Whale, on which Clive Barker (HELLRAISER) served as Executive Producer.