Written by: Bill Condon, Michael Laughlin
Directed by: Michael Laughlin
Starring: Michael Murphy, Louise Fletcher, and Dan Shor
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
"This aint no ordinary professor - he's dead!"
Back in the 80s, Roger Ebert derisively referred to slashers as “Dead Teenager Movies,” so the title Dead Kids feels like a nice thumb to the eye. Even if it isn’t, it’s still a fucking great title that tells you all you need to know: there be dead kids here (and of course, American distributors got squeamish and renamed it Strange Behavior). An Ozploitation flick by way of New Zealand, Dead Kids is a deceptive entry in the slasher cycle since it merely poses as a typical splatter film before setting off on its own tangents. Per usual, you can’t expect Australians to do anything straightforward. We love them for that, though.
Rather than litter their homeland with the corpses of dead kids, these Aussies instead turned Auckland into the American Midwest, where a small college town is haunted by a spree of murders. Town sheriff John Brady (Michael Murphy) suspects shenanigans at the school’s psychology department, as a professor (Fiona Lewis) is continuing the behavioral experiments of a deceased quack (Arthur Dignam). As John’s son Pete (Dan Shor) and his friends are drawn into the experiments, bodies continue amount alongside evidence that points to a tragic event in town history that refuses to stay buried.
Really, the alternate title is more fitting here; while there are plenty of dead kids to go around, it’s more noteworthy that everyone acts like a weirdo. I don’t know if it’s a result of the cultural mish-mash going on, but this is a pretty poor imitation of Americans and an even more baffling depiction of humans in general. Nobody acts naturally, so interactions are typically stilted and awkward to the point of creating a convincing aesthetic. The off-kilter vibe is so thick that the killer could cut through it with his butcher knife. One of the first scenes has father and son sharing a bathroom, and the latter’s nude for whatever reason (note: there is rarely any rhyme nor reason to be found). That’s one way to set a tone, I guess.
It’s what gives the film its unique flavor, though, and it winds up being less a straightforward slasher and more of a cock-eyed giallo (probably a redundant turn of phrase but still—this is a pretty weird one). While the film opens with a typical opening prologue, the slashing turns on its head during the next set of murders, which has a weirdo in a Tor Johnson mask stalking some teens at a party. If that doesn’t sound strange (and awesome) enough, it takes a jarring turn when the killer reveals himself for the audience. Far from a resolution, it’s just the first layer peeled off of an onion that grows more conspiratorial as the film advances.
You should probably be able to figure out the film’s direction once Pete and his buddy (Marc McClure) first encounter the university’s experiments, still lorded over by video recordings of the dead doc who hams it up like a late-night horror show host. The overall vibe is slightly reminiscent of Dead and Buried, only the particulars are even wackier (1981 was a very good year for folks convinced that every small town is secretly the murder capital of the world, which is probably only true of those residing below the Mason-Dixon Line).
For example, the investigation leads the cops to track down leads relating to all of the fat girls on campus, a turn that finds Murphy grilling Lewis in deadpan fashion (and it takes talent to deliver a line like “you been doing experiments on fat girls?” without cracking up). It winds up being a more intriguing and logical mystery than expected since it connects quite well once the script stops withholding information (something it’s fond of, quite frankly—you have no idea why Chief Brady holds such a grudge against the college until the film’s 11th hour). I love that it’s eventually one hell of an elaborate revenge plot, which I guess is true of most of these things.
But this one’s really got the goods, both before and behind the camera, where Aussie B-movie maven Anthony Ginnane assembled some familiar and soon-to-be-familiar faces. A young guy named Bill Condon (Candyman: Farewell to the Flesh, Gods and Monsters) wrote the script, while Two-Lane Blacktop producer Michael Laughlin directed; the duo would team up again for Strange Invaders, the second part of a loose trilogy that never saw completion. The cast is also an enjoyable collection younger talent paired with veterans, with Louise Fletcher headlining despite only showing up in a handful of scenes.
She’s Brady’s live-in girlfriend (though, again, this isn’t really made explicit until later on—she just sort of shows up at the beginning, and her relationship to the Brady boys is ambiguous) and provides the climax’s crucial exposition that explains just what in the hell is going on. Ginnane also didn’t skimp on the music budget, as Tangerine Dream provides a suitably moody score. However, in a surprise upset, Lou Christie upstages everyone's favorite German soundtrackers with “Lightning Strikes,” a 60s ditty that serves as a dance number at the ill-fated house party (and as my enduring memory of the film, honestly).
Indeed, Dead Kids is one odd duck. Full of all the gruesome stuff horror audiences began to crave by this point (a needle-to-the-eye bit still makes me squirm), the film is also outfitted with bizarre flourishes that give it an offbeat gait right up until its awkward stumbling to the finish line, where the movie abruptly ends. Severin has been on an Ozploitation kick lately, and Dead Kids represents another fine Blu-ray upgrade for fans who have been stuck with a decade old DVD at this point. A pair of commentaries headlines the extras, one featuring Condon, Shor, and Dey Young, while Laughlin supplies the other (via Skype!). Two trailers and an isolated soundtrack fill out the disc, which will hopefully bring attention to this cool oddity that belongs on the Mount Rushmore of Aussie schlock from this era. Buy it!
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