Strange and Fantastic Tales of the 20th Century is a look back at the weirdest and most off center movies of the 20th century. From head turning horror to oddball science fiction this column examines the films that leave audiences not knowing what to think.
The 50’s and 80’s collide in Michael Laughlin’s Strange Behavior (Dead Kids). In this film, a professor who has devoted his research to the study of mind control devises a way to control students and turn them into killers. The premise of this film harkens back to the mad scientist films of the earlier half of the twentieth century and mixes in the style and attitude of the late 70’s and emerging 80’s fashion and sensibilities.
The violence is unusually tame for a slasher film. This might be attributed to classic 50’s aesthetics. Strange Behavior does not really spend too much time on the killing, but there is quite a build up to each attack. The first killing happens to Bryan, played by screenwriter Bill Condon, the audience sees Bryan murdered as he makes shadow puppets in a dark hallway illuminated only by a flashlight. The silhouettes reveal what we already suspected, young Bryan is not alone in the house and we see his shadow stabbed repeatedly. In fact, there’s no blood during this killing and apparently no blood is left at the scene as Bryan is thought to be missing. It’s not until a party that the killer is revealed.
The killer wears a Tor Johnson mask, and in true drive-in fashion, he targets a couple in a parked car. This scene sets the tone as the killer is somewhat bungling, kills one victim, but the girl ( a sexy thirteen year old, this is how she is described by one of partygoers) escapes with a hideous bloody wound to her ankle. The killer is then chased off by the party guests. With each attack, the killings become more violent and a little more blood is shown on screen. This makes the murder of a young eleven year old boy particularly gruesome as we see him being dismembered by a local overweight girl ( the film also makes it a point to let us know about her weight issues).
Descriptions of girls aside, Strange Behavior is actually surprisingly forward thinking in its treatment of women. Slasher films and breasts go hand in hand. There is no nudity in this film. What the film lacks in boobs and gore, it makes up for in quirkiness. Characters say the strangest things. During a party, a young girl opens the door and announces the theme is freedom, which means she is not wearing underwear. The scene only gets stranger as our protagonist Pete, played by Dan Shor, and his friend walk into a costume party where all these 80’s teens are losing their minds over Lou Christie’s 1966 hit “Lightnin’ Strikes.” The teenagers love this song so much that they have a whole dance over this.
I have to wonder what this is all about. It’s a great scene and it makes me want to have a dance party with nothing but hits from the 1960’s. We’ve learned from other films that sometimes directors and producers bring cultural tidbits into their film that do not translate well with American audiences. I was watching Derry Girls, a show about 90’s girls growing up in Derry, Ireland. They are at a wedding and the entire party drops down on the floor and has a whole dance to “Rock the Boat” by The Hughes Corporation. So I wonder if the “Lightnin’ Strikes” scene is due to a popularity in New Zealand or maybe just someone’s favorite song. Whatever the reason, I’m glad this scene exists!
The score also plays a key factor in this film. Tangerine Dream does the music for Strange Behavior and in their custom a level of dreamy surrealness embraces each scene where it is featured. In Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark, the Tangerine Dream adds to the romance between the small town and the blossoming love between Caleb and Mae, adding an innocence to their attraction, despite Mae’s proclivity for drinking blood. In Strange Behavior, The score heightens the peaceful ambiance of the town, adding an eeriness of the danger lurking beneath. There is an interesting camera angle as Pete drives through the town, the shot comes from his backseat making the audience a passenger. The audience is lulled into the good nature of the quirky town, never forgetting that the killer could be anyone.
In fact, the killer is anyone who has ever participated in the psychological exam. The film concludes with the reveal of the lab’s true intentions and the mad scientist and his henchwoman are finally stopped. I showed up for the slasher film, but it’s the strangeness of Strange Behavior, otherwise known as Dead Kids, that drew me in.