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Strange Behavior

Strange Behavior
1981 / color / 2:35 anamorphic 16:9 / 87, 99, 105 min. / Street Date May 6, 2003 / 19.95
Starring Michael Murphy, Louise Fletcher, Dan Shor, Fiona Lewis, Arthur Dignam, Dey Young, Marc McClure, Scott Brady, Charles Lane, Elizabeth Cheshire
Cinematography Louis Horvath
Production Designer Susanna Moore
Art Direction Russell Collins
Film Editor Petra von Oelffen
Original Music Tangerine Dream
Written by Michael Laughlin and Bill Condon
Produced by John Barnett, John Daly, William Fayman, Antony I. Ginnane, David Hemmings
Directed by Michael Laughlin

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.

(all spoilers)

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 what?

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 injection.  1 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 Blue Velvet.

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:
Movie: Good
Video: Very Good
Sound: Excellent
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

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