Dead Kids Blu-ray Review
Written by Robert Gold
Blu-ray released by Glass Doll Films
Directed by Michael Laughlin
Written by Bill Condon and Michael Laughlin
1981, 101 minutes, Rated R
Blu-ray released on March 23rd, 2016
Michael Murphy as John Brady
Dan Shor as Pete Brady
Louise Fletcher as Barbara
Fiona Lewis as Gwen Parkinson
Dey Young as Caroline
Marc McCLure as Oliver
Arthur Dignam as Dr. Le Sange
Charles Lane as Donovan
1981 was a bizarre year for horror films, as it saw the arrival of no less than eleven slasher movies and three werewolf pictures. Originality is sometimes hard to find when the waters are diluted by an endless tide of imitators chasing either the last big hit or next big wave. This is precisely what makes it all the more satisfying to discover the rare title that goes against the current. One such example is Dead Kids, a bizarre film shot in New Zealand, set in Illinois and featuring an interesting spin on the classic mad scientist subgenre.
The small town of Galesberg, Illinois, is suffering a series of unsolved murders. Making matters worse, it appears there may be more than one individual committing these crimes, and there are no clear leads. Sheriff John Brady holds a personal grudge against the scientists at the local university, and believes they are somehow responsible for anything that goes wrong. Complicating matters, the sheriff’s son, Pete, is secretly participating in a series of medical experiments on campus in order to make some fast cash. Dr. Gwen Parkinson heads the program and is carrying on the research of the late scientist Dr. Le Sange, a controversial figure in the community in part due to his work involving behavior modification. There are side effects to this program, including memory loss and – murder. Yes, the kids are unable to control or remember their urge to kill. What the hell is going on in this town and why? Are the victims chosen at random or is there a method to this madness? Stay tuned.
Famed indie-producer Michael Laughlin (Two-Lane Blacktop) makes his directorial debut with the horror/ sci-fi/ comedy Dead Kids (aka Strange Behavior), a nostalgic homage to genre films of the 1950s, but made during the era of the slasher. Co-written by Laughlin and Bill Condon (Candyman: Farewell to the Flesh), the script brilliantly weaves the eclectic story elements and manages to include a show-stopping musical number that is as charming as it is unexpected. Stylistically, the picture feels like a retro period piece but has a contemporary (1981) setting. Working closely with cinematographer Louis Horvath (Mesmerized), Laughlin recreates the cinematic look of the earlier period through stylistic lighting and camera angles reminiscent of those popular in decades past. The murder scenes fall more in line with modern day expectations, but feel all the more intense as they intrude upon the relative tranquility of the small-town vibe. Tying the juxtaposition of material together in a dreamlike tapestry is an impressive score from German electronic music group Tangerine Dream (Near Dark).
Michael Murphy (Shocker) heads the adult cast as Sheriff Brady, the man determined to rescue his town from the assholes at the science lab he knows in his broken heart to be responsible for all things terrible. His performance anchors a lot of the weirdness of the picture, and if at times he is a bit over the top, he actually is keeping pace with some of the plot’s more surreal elements. Dan Shor (Black Moon Rising) stars as our young protagonist Pete, the kid looking to score a couple hundred bucks and maybe get to take a hot girl on a date. His motives are pretty basic, but Pete really is just a decent guy in over his head. Shor is instantly likeable and has some smooth moves, both with the ladies and on the dance floor. Dey Young (Rock ‘n’ Roll High School) is delightful as Caroline and is the polar opposite of Fiona Lewis’ (Innerspace) villainess Gwen Parkinson. Lewis is both sexy and intimidating, while Young is more of the girl-next-door variety. The third female lead, Louise Fletcher (Invaders from Mars), is the most accomplished actress in this picture but is given the least to do as Barbara, the sheriff’s potential love interest. She makes the most of the material and has at least one worthwhile scene near the finale, but remains underappreciated for the majority of her screen time.
Marc McCLure (Pandemonium) heads the supporting cast as Pete’s best friend Oliver, maintaining his lengthy run as America’s go-to nice guy. He is given a bit more to do in this role than in some of his better-known films, but disappears around the halfway point of the movie. Arthur Dignam (The Duellists) is the mysterious Dr. Le Sange, a callback to the mad scientist character of an earlier era. He has an interesting look and brings an air of menace while simply speaking in a conversational tone. Longtime fans of old Hollywood will undoubtedly recognize character actor Charles Lane (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington) as Donovan, the sheriff’s put-upon clerk. This man was a legend with a career spanning almost seven decades, appearing in over three hundred projects. He gives some of the best line readings and has such a great demeanor that it is always a treat when he pops up on screen.
The film endured many alternate titles, including: Human Experiments, Small Town Massacre and Shadowlands, but was released domestically as Strange Behavior. It was well-received by critics and audiences alike, and benefitted from home video and frequent cable television screenings. Based on this accomplishment, it was soon followed by the companion piece Strange Invaders (1983), a sci/fi film that continued the throwback ‘50s vibe and featured many returning members of the cast and crew. This picture was not as successful and plans for a “strange” trilogy were quickly scrapped. I would love to see the filmmakers reunite for one more round, as the timing is right for a shake-up in the contemporary horror scene.
Video and Audio:
Presented in the original 2.35:1 aspect ratio, Dead Kids has received an all new 2K scan and looks significantly better than all previous releases. Colors and black levels are respectable and consistent, although some flaws in the source material remain.
The disc offers a DTS-HD MA mono mix that keeps the action front and center when it comes to speaker activity. Dialogue remains clear and free from distortion and is balanced well with the music and effects tracks.
There are two audio commentaries with members of the cast and crew; both were recorded a few years ago for an earlier release and have been ported over here. The first is a solo track with Laughlin, who discusses a wide range of topics, but not all are relevant. He is prompted by an unidentified interviewer whenever he strays too far off topic. This conversation was recorded via Skype in the early days of the technology, so quality is lacking, but it’s still worth a listen.
The second commentary features co-writer Bill Condon joined by actors Dan Shor and Dey Young. This is a much stronger track, as the participants are having a fun time revisiting the material and interacting with each other as they watch the onscreen action. One highlight comes about an hour in when Young asks Condon if he ever considered directing--particularly awkward as the Academy Award winner had at that point directed several high-profile features including Gods and Monsters and Dreamgirls.
A Very Delicious Interview with Dan Shor (43 minutes) finds the actor sitting on a bench in Central Park, discussing his lengthy career on both stage and screen. He seems delighted to talk about his work and genuinely pleased that this film is still popular among genre fans.
Craig Reardon reflects on his early career and how he landed his first solo job in The Effects of Strange Behavior (21 minutes). His memories are highly entertaining and he has no problem sharing his disappointment with some of his work on the picture. This is a really interesting interview and a highlight of the special features.
Both the US theatrical and International trailers are included for your viewing pleasure.
A 16-page booklet with an essay titled “Dancing with the Dead Kids” by John Harrison offers a nice history of the feature and includes many full-color photographs, including lobby cards, poster art and rare behind-the-scenes images.
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