Strange Behavior aka Dead Kids (1981)

Strange Behavior firs published by

Michael Laughlin had already produced a number of films in the late Sixties and early Seventies – including Monte Hellman’s classic road movie Two-Lane Blacktop (1971) – when he decided to try his own hand at directing. The result was the determinedly odd feature debut Strange Behavior (aka Dead Kids), a New Zealand film set improbably in the heart of rural Galesburg, Illinois.

It seems to begin as a slasher, with an adolescent boy, alone at home, fatally stabbed by an assailant in the dark – but then his attacker’s face is immediately shown, contrary to the subgenre’s normative conventions. Similarly, a (different) disguised slasher in the next kill sequence removes his mask as soon as his knifework is done. In other words, despite having all the trappings of slice and dice, Strange Behavior is less whodunnit than whydunnit, as local youths perpetrate murderous crimes without apparent motive, and shortly afterwards forget entirely what they have done. As in Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s later Cure (1997), events here are being orchestrated by an invisible manipulator whose purpose is at first unclear.

Meanwhile smart high school pupil Pete Brady (Dan Shor) enjoys a close and healthy relationship with his widowed father, the local ‘top cop’ John (Michael Murphy) – but when John opposes Pete’s plans to attend Galesburg’s own university, Pete sneaks behind his back, enrolling, on the recommendation of his best friend Oliver (Mark McClure), in a two-day paid experimental programme in the university’s psychiatric department. This is closely supervised by the seductive Gwen Parkinson (Fiona Lewis), who is continuing the pioneering work in behavioural programming and mental conditioning begun by her late mentor Dr Le Sange (Arthur Dignam) – even as Le Sange continues to haunt the faculty through broadcast video recordings of his old lectures. Again, it is pretty clear that all this is somehow connected with the murders, but the hows and whys lie deep in this community’s buried secrets, as a peculiar vendetta is played out against the good townsfolk through the next generation.

A psychodrama set in that strange limbo where bloody horror meets science fiction, Strange Behavior exposes age-old vindictiveness, undying jealousy and Freudian friction in a small-town slice of Americana that seems sleepy on the surface, but harbours evil grudges from beyond the grave. While we know that there is malicious brainwashing afoot, we never know quite how far its influence extends, because the behaviour of so many of these people – and not just the killers – is so very, very strange. Exhibit A here is the school graduation party that Pete and Oliver attend, where all the kids – sporting fancy dress – break spontaneously into a synchronised dance to Lou Christie’s mid-Sixties hit Lightnin’ Strikes. This truly incongruous sequence hints that maybe the whole town has fallen under a Mabuse figure’s mesmeric spell – or maybe it is just that backroad America dances to its own nostalgic tune. Certainly Laughlin’s film – with its classic diners, red convertibles and evil scientists – represents a throwback to the cinema of the 1950s, even if it is set in more modern times. Likewise, John seems to be stuck in a past that he cannot let go, and unable to move on with his new belle Barbara (Louise Fletcher). For in Galesburg, the repressed keeps on returning, and the deeds of the father are visited – with an Oedipal twist – upon the son.

Summary: A genuinely eccentric sort-of slasher, sort-of smalltown sci-fi from the early Eighties.

© Anton Bitel