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Reviews » Blu-ray Reviews » Dead Kids (Blu-ray)
Dead Kids (Blu-ray)
Severin // R // March 11, 2014 // Region A
List Price: $29.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Adam Tyner | posted March 4, 2014 | E-mail the Author
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Okay, Dead Kids is a head-on collision of an early '80s slasher with a retro mad scientist flick. You've got high schoolers signing up to become emotionless, murderous automotons in exchange for a crisp
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$100 check, plus one of 'em is flailing around a kitchen knife while rocking a Tor Johnson mask. I didn't even mention the part where it's an American/Kiwi co-production with makeup effects by Craig Reardon (Poltergeist; The Gate), a screenplay co-written by future Academy Award winner Bill Condon (Gods and Monsters), and a score by Tangerine Dream. Based on all that, Dead Kids -- which you might also know on these shores as Strange Behavior -- sounds as if it oughtta be the most Adam Tyneriest thing ever committed to celluloid. It sure has amassed a hell of a rabid fanbase over the past thirtysomeodd years. Shockingly enough, I can't say I'm part of that club.

Pete Brady (Dan Shor) isn't so much the burger-flipping type. Still, the guy's on his way out the door of this sleepy little midwestern high school, he could use some easy cash, and a buddy of his turns him onto a gig as a glorified lab rat. It's a pretty sweet deal. The doctor administrating all this stuff (Fiona Lewis) is kind of a fox, the whole thing starts off with a healthy dose of Experimental Big Brain Pills, and he gets $100 to boot. Adjusting for inflation, that's, like, $283.88! Ssshhh! Don't tell Pete's dad, though. These experiments would bring to mind the demented work of the late Dr. LeSange (Arthur Dignam), the long dead nutjob that Sheriff Brady (Michael Murphy) still blames for the loss of his wife ages ago. Hmmmm, and y'know, this ordinarily quiet town sure has been plagued by a slew of grisly murders lately. Is it a case of science gone wrong, or is there something more nefarious at work here?

The 20,000 foot view of Dead Kids sounds pretty spectacular, yeah, but once I started slogging my way through it...ack. The pace is extreeeeeemmmmmmeeeeeellllllyyyyy ssssssllllllloooooowwwwww. There's no snap or rhythm to the line readings, which kind of plod along. The editing by Petra von Oelffen -- who was too embarrassed to be credited under her full name -- is awfully clunky, more than a couple times cutting to a different scene in the middle of a word. The brainwashed, murderous kids angle is a lot more
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lukewarm than you'd expect. Doesn't help that the body count is microscopic, and you can count all the sequences with gruesome makeup effects on one hand. Dead Kids delivers what's easily the most incompetently staged stalk-and-slash in any horror flick I've ever come across, and you're talking to someone who cheerfully suffers through the worst of the worst. What's supposed to be the standout fright sequence comes after a barely pubescent girl clues in that her dumpy date has been slaughtered. She half-heartedly trots across a yard from a killer who couldn't really give a shit, and instead of some frenzied, brutal attack, he disinterestedly waves his knife a couple of times. No swooping camerawork, no thunderous score, no nothin'. The framing, the editing, the music, the performances...it's all wildly ineffective.

I guess I can keep going. The mystery about the puppet master behind the murders is about as engaging as your average episode of Scooby-Doo, and I mean that in more ways than one. An awful lot of the acting is mechanical and flat, even for actors who aren't supposed to be on these experimental robo-meds. There's zero tension, suspense, or energy to propel the whole thing along. The lightly satirical tone rarely gets much of a smirk. The legendarily spazzy costumed dance is a blast, sure, and the intensity finally does start to ratchet up near the very end, but the rest of the movie is so borderline-unwatchable that it's not worth it to trudge through all that to get to the Tootsie Roll center of this Tootsie Pop. If you've never subjected yourself to Dead Kids before, I'd definitely suggest renting it before whipping out your credit card. Rent It.


Video
I don't have the Elite Entertainment or Synapse Films DVDs handy to do a direct comparison, but I'm sure this shiny, new Blu-ray disc from Severin is a marked improvement. Like the other flicks in this wave of horror from down under, Dead Kids unearths the original negative for this new high-def presentation. It's a mixed bag, admittedly. On the upside, film grain is rendered extremely well, with no filtering or encoding missteps to get in the way. Colors are sometimes drab enough to make Dead Kids look at least a few years older than it actually is, but the saturation in many other sequences looks spot-on to my eyes. The presentation is reasonably clean but is peppered with more flecks of dust than usual. Crispness and clarity, meanwhile, are all over the place. Some sequences are wonderfully sharp and detailed, such as this case in point:
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...and then something this excessively soft will roll along:
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There's everything in between as well. I'm sure a lot of that sporadic softness dates back to the original production, and the gripes I've seen in reviews of the Elite and Synapse DVDs make it sound as if this was even more of a problem in those earlier releases. I'm not droning on about this to condemn Dead Kids or anything -- this is often a very slick looking disc! -- but keep your expectations in check. This isn't gonna be a reference quality release.

The technical specs are the same as Thirst. Again, you're lookin' at an AVC encode on a BD-25 disc. The aspect ratio remains a touch wider than usual for a scope film, closer to 2.43:1 rather than the 2.35:1 that would've been standard when cameras were rolling in 1980, although it's too minute a difference to fuss about. Oh, and this is a combo release, so there's an anamorphic widescreen DVD riding shotgun too.


Audio
After being disappointed that Thirst was limited to DVD-quality audio, I braced myself for the worst with Dead Kids. The good news is that you do score a lossless soundtrack this time around: 16-bit, monaural DTS-HD Master Audio. There's no background noise of note, the elements are reasonably clean and clear, and dynamic range is healthy enough, especially for a low-budget flick of this vintage. Dialogue is generally rendered well, although the quality of the recording -- and the occasional looped line that really doesn't blend in -- can vary from scene to scene. As mentioned earlier, several sequences cut away really abruptly, and I don't know how much of that jarring feel is because of sloppy editing and how much might be issues with the audio. One unmistakeable flaw comes around the 1:12:45 mark, right after the Steak 'n Shake blood-pissing sequence. The score awkwardly drops out, there's a "John?" that comes out of nowhere, and after a second or two, the synths smash back in, mid-chord. Somebody fucked up, and unless the movie's always been mixed with that flaw in place, it's baffling why neither the licensor nor Severin noticed this during any QA checks.

No subtitles, dubs, or remixes this time around, not even the Spanish track from the Elite and Synapse DVDs. There are a few other audio options, but they're extras more than anything else, so I'll get into all that in just a sec...


Extras
All of the key extras from the Synapse and Elite DVDs have found their way onto this Blu-ray disc, with the exception of Synapse's deleted scenes. 'Course, the runtime looks to be a little longer here (101 minutes vs. Synapse/Elite's 99), so maybe that footage is in the movie proper this time around...? No idea.
  • Audio Commentaries: Severin has included a couple of new extras on this Blu-ray release, beginning with a commentary track by director Michael Laughlin. The disappointing thing here is that it's an interview
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    conducted over Skype, and the quality is really rough. It took a few minutes, but I eventually settled into it. Laughlin covers quite a lot of ground here: financing, setting up shop in New Zealand for a movie set in Illinois, audition-less casting, editing, scoring, dance choreography, as well as unconventional and wildly enthusiastic test screenings. It's not the most exciting commentary I've ever heard, but I dug it.

    The other commentary's been making the rounds on DVD for more than a decade now, featuring co-writer Bill Condon along with actors Dan Shor and Dey Young. This one's a hell of a lot of fun and overflowing with personality. Didja know Klaus Kinski was originally cast but dropped out at the last minute? Ever wonder why there are so many bottles of Coke scattered all around Dead Kids? Everything from Bill Condon getting strung up for a 'posthumous' cameo to an explanation about the greatly varying titles all the way to Buck Henry's outgoing message gets dissected in here. If you only have time for one of these commentaries, I'll try to nudge you in this direction.

  • The Effects of Strange Behavior (21 min.; HD): Yeah, this featurette uses one of the movie's other titles. Go figure. No matter what you call it, though, this newly-conducted interview with effects artist Craig Reardon -- a name you'll see in the credits of just about everything made in the 1980s -- easily stands out as the highlight of all these extras. Reardon chats about how little notice he had and how improvisational so much of his work here had to be, delving at length into everything from a quickly slapped-together needle-through-the-eye gag to some misframed wrist-slashing where you can see the thread holding the blood tube. Reardon also talks briefly about where his career took him after this, including some really impressive stills from his archives. Definitely worth a look.

  • Isolated Score: Tangerine Dream's music gets the isolated score treatment here in Dolby Digital 2.0 (192kbps).

  • Promotional Stuff (5 min.; SD): Rounding out the extras are two trailers: one domestic and the other international. Both are in standard-def only.

This is a combo release that also includes a DVD of the movie, by the way.


The Final Word
Dead Kids sounds as if it's all the right kinds of batshit insane. I mean, we're talking about a movie where you have an infectiously ridiculous dance party going on inside, and out on the front lawn, a remotely-controlled Jimmy Olsen in a Tor Johnson mask is slashing this kitchen knife towards a thirteen year old tramp. Dead Kids sounds a lot more gonzo than it actually is, though, and it's too tedious and ineptly made to make it worth slogging your way to the good stuff. There are a whole lot of fawning reviews of Dead Kids floating around out there, so maybe there's just something terribly wrong with me, but my vote...? Rent It first.
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