DENNIS SCHWARTZ 
IS THERE ANY GOOD 
IN SAYING 
EVERYTHING ABOUT A MOVIE?

 
STRANGE BEHAVIOR (aka: DEAD KIDS) (director/writer: Michael Laughlin; screenwriter: Bill Condon; cinematographer: Louis Horvath; editor: Petra; music: Tangerine Dream; cast: Michael Murphy (John Brady), Louise Fletcher (Barbara Moorehead), Dan Shor (Pete Brady), Fiona Lewis (Gwen Parkinson), Arthur Dignam (Dr. Le Sangel/Nagel), Dey Young (Caroline), Marc McClure (Oliver Myerhoff), Scott Brady (Shea, Chicago Detective), Charles Lane (Donovan), Elizabeth Cheshire (Lucy Brown), Jim Boelsen (Waldo), Jack Haines (Randy Morgan), Bill Condon (Bryan Morgan), Beryl Te Wiata (Mrs. Haskell); Runtime: 103; MPAA Rating: R; producers: John Barnett/Antony I. Ginnane; Elite Entertainment; 1981-Australia/New Zealand/USA)

 
"Both grisly and absurd."

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz 

Mad scientist shocker slasher flick, strangely directed by Michael Laughlin ("My Letter to George"/"Strange Invaders") in a plodding manner that is both grisly and absurd. It's co-written by Laughlin and future director Bill Condon ("Gods and Monsters"), who for most of the film have created a beautiful, inventive and satirical monster screenplay. But the third act is a bummer, that degenerates into farfetched and nonsensical turf. This almost ruins its earlier effort to keeps things weirdly sensible, slasher film friendly and genre-like suspenseful. But it becomes too bloodied in its third act twists, as it changes directions from being merely a slasher pic to pay homage to the science fiction and horror B movies of the 1950s and seems like a different pic--one that derides its intelligent earlier attempt to explain behavior as a sum of the chemical activities of the body.

It was shot in New Zealand (subbing for Illinois) with a budget of $1.5 Million and on a 30-day schedule.

In the sleepy college town of Galesburg, Illinois, widowed single parent police chief John Brady (Michael Murphy) lives an uneventful life with his high school senior son Pete (Dan Shor), while he dates loyal waitress Barbara (Louise Fletcher) and tries to forget about his beloved wife. Pete wants to attend the local college, but dad wants him to go to an out-of-town school to see a different view of life. It seems dad has a negative view of the liberal college.

Oliver Myerhoff (Marc McClure), Pete's classmate, introduces him to an experimental program at the Psychology Department at Galesburg that pays 200 dollars to be guinea pigs injected with a drug that induces "chemical conditioning." The program was started a long time ago by the mysterious Dr. Le Sangel (Arthur Dignam), who died three years ago, and is currently run by his dragon lady assistant, Gwen Parkinson (Fiona Lewis). Pete's mom worked for Le Sangel before her death when he was only one, and his father has always maintained that the researcher is evil and responsible for his wife's death that was ruled as a heart attack caused by an asthma attack.

When there are four brutal murders--that include the surgical scalpel slaying of the mayor's twentysomething son (Bill Condon, the screenwriter), the butcher knife stabbing at a student costume party of the school bully (Jim Boelsen) by the killer wearing a Tor Johnson mask, an 11-year-old slain in his bathtub with his hands chopped off, and the butcher knife stabbing in the back of the gossipy backstabbing housekeeper (Beryl Te Wiata)--the puzzled police chief calls for help from Chicago and Detective Shea (Scott Brady) arrives to assist. Eventually Pete, who develops a romantic relationship with the experimental program secretary Caroline (Dey Young), investigates the bizarre activities at the Psychology Department, and aids his dad in cracking this macabre case in a macabre way despite the severe side effects caused by the injections.

There are a few scenes that are brilliant and make this uneven film memorable, such as the student party where teenagers in costumes from the 1960s TV characters (like The Flying Nun, My Favorite Martian, and Hoss Cartwright) dance to Lou Christie's 1966 billboard number one song "Lightning Strikes," only to have the party crash when the teens observe the house swimming pool filling with blood because one of their teen female party-goers has been stabbed and is drowning.

It's certainly on familiar grounds in its storyline, theme and filming techniques with the spate of slasher pics that came out at the time, but there's nevertheless something unexpected and refreshing about its gritty attitude toward small town life, arrogant know-it-all scientists and B films that need to be injected with new life, that makes this film special even if it's flawed.

REVIEWED ON 2/6/2011       GRADE: B

Dennis Schwartz: "Ozus' World Movie Reviews"

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