Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
A quirky teen slasher movie that delivers 100% on mood and context, while not quite serving up
a completely satisfying story, Strange Behavior is a combination of great ensemble
acting creating a believable, but weird small-town world.
The displaced but familiar tone is easily explained - the movie, originally titled Dead Kids,
is a co-production filmed in New Zealand, passing for Illinois! A number of imported American stars,
including some colorful bit parts, add to the retro appeal. At its best, Strange Behavior
seems to be playing out in an alternate reality right next door to our own, pre-dating David Lynch's
more articulated shadow world in Blue Velvet.
Teenagers are found horribly mutilated in the small town policed by Chief John
Brady (Michael Murphy), and the coroner doesn't think the same assailant is responsible for the
killings. Brady accepts the help of his girlfriend Barbara Moorehead (Louise Fletcher), while his
son Pete (Dan Shor) earns the money he needs for college by volunteering for radical psych
experiments at the local college. The curiously unethical-sounding work is being done by Gwen
Parkinson (Fiona Lewis) to follow up on the ideas of the later Dr. Le Sange, who still teaches
through 16mm films of his lectures. Pete finds an interesting girlfriend at the research center,
Caroline (Dey Young), but starts
to behave strangely ...
Strange Behavior has an engaging appearance and an odd tone, a feeling of 'fresh deja vu.'
The cars are mostly old American models, and much of the clothing on view has a 50s American
feel. The interesting, unobtrusive color design also makes its own mark, and Louis Horvath's
Panavision photography finds fresh ways to enliven scenes.
Michael Laughlin's gruesome thriller came out right in the middle of the slasher-chic phase of
American Horror started by Halloween but typified by Friday the 13th: a series of
meaningless but entertaining bloody deaths are explained as some kind of low-grade curse, involving
child abuse or a traumatic crime from the past. Technically, Strange Behavior fits right in -
when we're shown a remote-controlled chicken, we know where the slasher
killers are coming from. The tired hero's unproven theory that the psychology department at the
college is responsible for these and earlier killings, turns out to be 100% accurate.
If it had any conviction to its theme, the movie would be ridiculously right-wing. Those damn
liberal scientists not only killed the Police Chief's young wife, they're still conducting a
murderous vendetta against the locals who hounded mad psychologist La Sange to an early grave. If
anything, the script is a gloss on those late-30's Boris Karloff potboilers where he's after the
jury that hanged him, or the crooks who double-crossed him.
The murders get an A+ for originality and a C for impact. The first scene is the worst in the film,
with a really bad knifing seen in silhouette. Elsewhere, Craig Reardon's makeup effects are okay
(especially in a brief cut of a teen chopped up and strung up as a scarecrow), but the subsequent
knifing attacks are repetitive and lacking in imagination.
Strange Behavior is a complete reversal of the usual slasher film, where the murders are
detailed and the characters non-existant. We immediately like and care about the people in this
story. This Michael Murphy holds the center, and is made more likeable by the adoration of Louise
Fletcher. Teen leads Dan Shor and Dey Young are charming, and Superman alumnus Marc McClure
is okay as one of the possessed teens. On the outskirts of genre expectations, we get Scott Brady
(Johnny Guitar) as a visiting detective, and old Charles Lane (the real estate creep from
It's a Wonderful Life, 35 years earlier) as the Chief's grumpy assistant.
Director Laughlin creates a very persuasive world. It's relaxed and socially positive, kind of a
50s Teevee land made more realistic, and less hyper. There's no hint of drugs around, but the partying
kids do seem to be into cigarettes and beer (and Coca-Cola product placement). The chief goes around
informally in shirtsleeves, and takes
the abuse of his assistant without complaint. When the coroner wants to show him the gory wounds
on the corpses, he balks and begs off, a very nice touch that keeps him vulnerable for the ordeal
of the end. Woody Allen regular Michael Murphy plays the character straight and interesting - he's
shown clipping his toenails in his first scene. Given a non-harpy role to play, Louise Fletcher is
warm and charming, just the kind of woman you'd want your dad to remarry.
Laughlin's retro feel results in some strange displacements of tone. The teen party is a lot of fun,
with kids actually dancing (huh?) and looking fresh-faced and positively-charged under their party
costumes. The stylization has them hopping wildly to Lou Christie's Lightning Strikes, and
for a moment they're dancing in unison, with a coordinated camera move. The effect is
very weird ... the old song, and the primitive choreography have a strong nostalgic feel - but for
Likewise, the central plot hook is a strange throwback to earlier forms. Everyone who's ever taken
one of those stupid undergraduate psych tests lampooned in Ghostbusters will flinch at
the craziness seen here - remote controlled chickens, a gooney guru lecturing from beyond the grave.
Just as we decide that these gimmicks are fairly original, along comes the smooth, icily beautiful
Fiona Lewis, with her oh-so-perfect red hairdo (the model for Sean Young in Blade Runner,
the commentary tells us) and faintly seductive m.o. when dealing with her male experimental
subjects. First thing we know, gullible Pete is being given experimental drugs, and a traumatic-looking
The Fiona Lewis connection is interesting; Laughlin was the producer of The Whisperers in
England, saw her in The Fearless Vampire Killers, and cast her in his own Joanna. Ten
years pass, and, whoop, she's back working for him again.
The good news is that Strange Behavior is indeed unique. Until the very end, there's hardly
a predictable scene in view. It definitely goes against the grain of the horror film, circa 1981:
the killings aren't milked for gore, and aren't the center of interest. This picture got a solid
release, when gut-buckets like City of the Living Dead were grabbing fan attention but
playing mostly outside the mainstream. And the oddball-but-square sensibilities of the filmmakers
create an interesting, humorous world, tamer than David Lynch, but less militantly 'artistic.'
Too bad it doesn't come together all that well - the mystery is wrapped up with some nice details
(such the secret of Pete Brady's paternity) but doesn't have much resonance. The central
remote-control conceit remains a mostly pointless excuse for mayhem. The fun Fiona Lewis character
turns out to be rather irrelevant, one of a half-dozen characters who amuse but don't pay off.
Except to provide a happy ending, Louise Fletcher's whole,
perfectly-performed role has little relationship to anything. The earlier programmed killers, like
Marc McClure, never even find out what they've done. But the overall intelligent tone garnered a
heap of reviews from 1981 critics, grateful for not having to endure another stupid gorefest.
The killings turn out to be really weakly handled, just from a practical point of view. A clueless
killer like McClure or the 'fat girl killer', even if they were left without memory, would
doubtless be covered by blood, or at least leave a track of bloody footprints. And why are the
killings targeting the mayor's kid, instead of the mayor himself. The genre background still seems
a commercial excuse, unlike the thematically dense Lynchian ode to the 'strangeness of life' in
Still, we like the people in this picture almost as much as Lynch's characters, and the
film holds us in suspense, unlike the dozens of boring slasher epics of time. It's a B+ as a
horror film and an A- as entertainment.
Elite's DVD of Strange Behavior looks and sounds brand-new, with a punchy soundtrack and
a very sharp 16:9 enhanced transfer. The encoding is fine. Two deleted scenes are fairly
forgettable. There's a nice still selection. But the best part is the commentary from the film's
writer and two teen stars, twenty years later. Writer Condon actually plays the first victim in
the movie, and he explains how the film came to be made in New Zealand. Young and Shor
are pretty funny throughout, and dispense a lot of good info that fans of the film will appreciate,
such as how the famous hypo scene was shot.
The cover art is a fairly unsatisfactory attempt at a new graphic, that makes the film look like a
new direct-to-video cheapie. The ad art from '81 was a huge closeup of Dan Shor being jabbed in the
eye with a needle - perhaps the changing climate toward violence nixed that idea.
Michael Laughlin came back two years later with a bigger hit, the curiously flat Strange
Invaders. It goes all-out for 50s sci fi nostalgia, and unfortunately seems to be working
too hard to achieve its meagre result.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Strange Behavior rates:
Video: Very Good
Supplements: Commentary by writer Bill Condon and actors Dan Shor and Dey Young,
trailer, deleted scenes, Isolated music score, Photo gallery
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May, 2003
1. Strange Behavior
has a few surprises, like the interrupted hypodermic-to-the-eye scene. Fiona Lewis has to leave
Pete alone, and genre expectations dictate that he'll escape. Deviating from form, after
the interruption is disposed of, Fiona slinks back to her still-bound Pete and follows through,
ramming the needle into the corner of his eye socket. I'm told that audiences screamed at this
almost bloodless variation on the Fulci signature scene.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson