Strange Behavior / Dead Kids (1981)

“This is no ordinary professor — he’s dead!”

Synopsis:
A police chief (Michael Murphy) investigates a rash of murders which may be linked to mind-control experiments conducted by a local university’s psychology department.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
I am largely in agreement with Peary’s assessment of this “low-budget horror film” that was “photographed in New Zealand but is set in America’s Midwest” — and, as noted by DVD Savant, “has an engaging appearance and an odd tone”. Peary writes that he finds “the script by Bill Condon and Michael Laughlin pretty witty and inventive”, but argues that the “direction by Laughlin is weak”, given that he “has no sense of timing during suspense scenes”. Indeed, the film’s pacing is noticeably off during more than just the suspense scenes: in her review of the film for the New York Times, Janet Maslin notes that Laughlin’s “timing with his actors is often dangerously slow, allowing many more pregnant pauses than his players can comfortably handle”. I disagree with Peary, however, in his assessment that the script is at times “so offbeat that… it becomes confusing”: while there are definitely some narrative inconsistencies, and a number of scenes (particularly the murders) are handled sloppily, the plot is always comprehensible, up until its final revelatory moments.

The performances throughout Strange Behavior are a mixed bag, given the mostly amateur, low-budget cast. Murphy — one of the film’s few “big names” — is solid but not particularly compelling in the lead investigative role; Dan Shor as his teenage son is more intrinsically charismatic, and his character should probably have been given even more screentime. Louise Fletcher provides typically excellent support in a tiny role as Murphy’s long-suffering girlfriend, but she is mostly — as Peary puts it so bluntly — “wasted”. Fiona Lewis gives the most memorable performance: she’s clearly having fun as the film’s unabashed villainness, a woman who takes great delight in puncturing her “subjects” in the eyeball with an enormous syringe. (A bit of trivia: apparently her futuristic hairstyle here influenced the vision for Sean Young’s character in Blade Runner.)

Note: Laughlin and Condon’s follow-up to this film was the alien flick Strange Invaders (1983), also included in Peary’s book.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • A few effectively creepy sequences

Must See?
No; despite its erstwhile cult status, this one isn’t must-see.

Links:

3 Responses to “Strange Behavior / Dead Kids (1981)”

  1. Quick correction: Fiona Lewis played the girlfriend, Louise Fletcher the mad doctor.

  2. Actually, I’m remembering wrong. You’re right.

  3. Not a must – and basically in agreement with the various points brought up.

    Though, with all that, I will probably go ahead and give the film the ‘Nice Try Award’. There are moments when the deliberately slow pacing becomes chilling – esp. when placed against what’s happening behind-the-scenes in this town. It’s hard to deny that the tone is effective in its own way.

    Still, the movie can occasionally be annoying and you will certainly suspend disbelief from time to time. There’s also a certain erotic element simultaneously afoot and dormant.

    Overall, not a waste of time – and you may somehow end up appreciating the genre being taken in this more leisurely direction. I think the cast does well with what they’re asked to do. (Fiona seems to have wanted to go ‘further’ than allowed. That might have been interesting, but oh well…)

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