Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Census Bloodbath: They Must Be Working For The Skin Trade

Year: 1981
Director: Michael Laughlin
Cast: Michael Murphy, Dan Shor, Fiona Lewis
Run Time: 1 hour 37 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

It’s a miracle that any Australian films get made at all, let alone in the slasher genre, let alone relatively good entries in the slasher genre. So let’s take a moment to respect how incredibly improbable it is that Strange Behavior (AKA Dead Kids) even exists.

I’ll wait.

That said, Strange Behavior is about as far from the slasher formula as it’s possible to get while still being on the same general framework. It’s like somebody gave the Australians a car chassis and they built a mechanical elephant.

Strange Behavior centers around the small town of Galesburg, (cough) Illinois. Pete Brady (Dan Shor) is a high school senior and the son of the sheriff, John (Michael Murphy of Shocker). Pete doesn’t know why, but John is strangely resistant to letting him apply to the local university, to the point of refusing to give him money for the application fee. His friend Oliver (Marc McClure of Freaky Friday) tips him off about a behavioral research program at the college’s psychology department that will give him cash quick and Pete agrees to check it out.

What Olivern neglects to tell Pete is that this research program, led by the beautiful and wicked Dr. Parkinson (Fiona Lewis) is brainwashing teens into murderous acts by stabbing them in the eyes with syringes, with the final target being Pete’s own father, who wanted to destroy the department’s program years ago when their experiments ended up killing his wife. This is the final revenge of the murderous mad scientist Dr. LeSange (Arthur Dignam), whose motives seem rather small-minded for a man who can make anybody do anything he wants.

I guess it’s the simple things in life that really matter.

The most striking thing about Strange Behavior is that its screenplay is almost supernaturally well-constructed. Every piece of it fits together perfectly, forward and backward, in ways both obvious and subtle. Foreshadowing and payoffs twirl together in a delicate dance, but it never asks more of the viewer than they can handle. You could write textbooks off the thing.

The film was penned by Bill Condon, who would go on to make a name for himself with films like Gods and Monsters, Candyman 2: Farewell to the Flesh, and The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 1. Hey, we can’t all be Spielberg. In addition to his deft plotting (which hews more toward a sci-fi/small town soap structure with a smattering of slasher kills for flavor), Condon leaves us with a variety of simple, but shaded characters that make the setting feel incredibly present. The film lives in its tiny character interactions, building the relationships between the townspeople and quietly curating a picturesque American idyll before it begins to heartily wrench it apart.

When it finally gets around to doing this, it’s not particularly terrifying, but that comes with the territory. The slasher genre was so well worn by even that point in 1981 that any variations, while welcome, were still about as scary as a glass of warm milk. It’s odd to say this about a film where a character slits his own wrists to a jangling Tangerine Dream soundtrack, but Strange Behavior is soothing. It’s comfort horror: not bad, not great. It fills you up and keeps you warm. But it doesn’t scare you or turn your stomach.

Unless you’re deathly afraid of bro perms.

Everything about Strange Behavior, save its slasher savant screenplay, coasts along at a level just a tick above “acceptable.” The cinematography is crisp, clear, and professional. It makes sure we can see everything but doesn’t try any funny business in the meantime. The sets are similarly wrought. They are provided the exact amount of dressing needed to believe that they might house actual humans, then they call it day (save for one diner set, which looks like someone spilled pink puffy paint on everything so they had to clear away the props, but an emergency forced them to film that day anyway).

The typical campiness of the 80’s slashers (which wouldn’t kick into high gear for another year or so) was also at a low ebb, save for a strange, fully choreographed dance sequence to “Lightnin’ Strikes” that I can’t for the life of me find any reasonable explanation for other than the fact that Bill Condon liked that song. At least the deaths are decent. They’re not particularly numerous or gory, but they’re reasonably chilling, especially considering the unwilling nature of their murderers. And two chase sequences in particular muster up some crumbs of tension – one as a teen girl is harassed in a swimming pool and the killer cuts the string of beads that she clings to, the other as a housekeeper discovers a body and learns that the killer’s still in the house.

By far the biggest actual flaw of the film is the shift in focus from Pete to John in the third act. Scriptwise, it’s an interesting reversal, but this forces the emotional crux of the film to fall on the shoulders of Michael Murphy, who is by far its weakest actor. Imagine if all of a sudden during the climax of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Audrey Hepburn stepped out for a smoke break and Mickey Rooney took her place. It’s something like that. But he’s not enough to totally knock the movie off its feet.

In short, Strange Behavior isn’t a film for anybody who wants to have a great time at their slumber party. For miserable lowlifes like me, it’s a breath of fresh air, but otherwise it’s nothing special.

Killer: A variety of teenagers orchestrated by Dr. LeSange (Arthur Dignam)
Final Girl: Pete Brady (Dan Shor)
Best Kill: Mrs. Haskell’s throat is slit as she describes her killer over the telephone.
Sign of the Times: Pete attends a costume party with an I Dream of Jeannie and a Flying Nun in attendance.
Scariest Moment: Pete pees blood after passing out in the diner.
Weirdest Moment: Pete walks into the bathroom bare-ass naked while his father is getting ready for work.
Champion Dialogue: “You couldn’t get an ‘A’ on Sesame Street.”
Body Count: 5
  1. Brian has his eyes gouged out with a scalpel.
  2. Waldo is stabbed in the throat.
  3. Timothy has his hand cut off.
  4. Mrs. Haskell is stabbed in the back and has her throat slit.
  5. Dr. LeSange is stabbed in the neck.
TL;DR: Strange Behavior is an off book, only decent slasher.
Rating: 6/10
Word Count: 1096

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