Strange Behavior Review

Galesburg, Illinois. A serial killer is on the rampage, murdering teenagers. Meanwhile, the high school psychology department is conducting experiments on behavioural control, following the theories of the recently deceased Dr Le Sangel. Sheriff Brady (Michael Murphy) suspects there is a connection somewhere, but can he find it before his own son Pete (Dan Shor) becomes another victim?

Strange Behavior was released during the slasher-film cycle that had begun with the commercial success of Halloween and later Friday the 13th. It stood out from the crowd with its strong cast, stylish direction, Tangerine Dream score and its humorous, slightly off-centre, slightly subversive sensibility, played part as homage to 50s horror movies, partly played straight. Box office was indifferent, but the film soon picked up a cult following. It has gone under a plethora of titles. It was originally titled Dead Kids and was shown in Australia and other countries under that title. However, in the US, due to recent campus killings newspapers and television refused to accept advertising under that title, so it was changed to Strange Behavior. (The Australian DVD release from Umbrella, calls the film Dead Kids during its opening credits but it is still called Strange Behavior at the end of the final credits.) In the UK it had video releases under the titles Small Town Massacre and Human Experiments. The most recent UK DVD release, from Optimum, is called Strange Behaviour (with the British spelling). Incidentally, the film has always been cut in the UK, as recently as 2008 for Optimum's DVD release: vertical instead of horizontal wrist-cutting, considered an imitable suicide technique by the BBFC.

Michael Laughlin was best known as a producer in the 60s and 70s. He and Bill Condon wrote the script with the intention of making a low-budget horror film that Laughlin would make his directorial debut on. The film was shot in New Zealand, in and around Auckland, even though it is set in the USA and is populated mostly by American actors. (Among the few exceptions, Arthur Dignam is Australian and Beryl Te Wiata is a New Zealander.) Condon appears at the beginning, as the first victim.

The other collaborator was Australian producer Antony I. Ginnane. Born in 1949, he had directed an apparently arty 16mm feature in 1971 called Sympathy in Summer, which has vanished into obscurity since. He found his feet as a producer, working at the unashamedly commercial end of the Australian film revival. Never popular with critics, his best films do stand up well today, partly because of his eye for director talent. (Three of his other productions, Patrick, Thirst and Dark Forces aka Harlequin, are being released by Synapse simultaneously to Strange Behavior.) Another body he was unpopular with was Australian Equity, who had blocked several of his attempts to import British and American actors. As a result, with Race for the Yankee Zephyr in 1981, he moved his operations to New Zealand. David Hemmings had starred in Thirst and he had gone on to work for Ginnane as an actor and director. Some of the financing for Strange Behavior came from Hemdale, the company Hemmings had formed with John Daly, with both of them taking executive producer credits.

For fans of the genre, Strange Behavior is a lot of fun, mixing some genuinely tense scenes with comedy – Laughlin and Condon even throw in a dance number. There's also an eyeball trauma that is not for the nervous. One thing that distinguishes the film is Laughlin's stylish direction. He had previously produced Monte Hellman's Two-Lane Blacktop and seems to have taken lessons on framing for Scope from Hellman. Many scenes play out in long master shots, with characters spread across the entire width of the frame. This type of filming would not have been possible a few years later, with the rise of homevideo meaning that Scope films would, more often than not, have to be composed so that they could be easily cropped to 4:3. Panning and scanning would be ruinous to Strange Behavior but it was done anyway: in the commentary Condon mentions that his second appearance in the film, as a scarecrow, has never been seen before now on the small screen as a result.

In 1981, as I say above, the slasher film genre was at its height, and Condon and Laughlin play against the cliches which by then had set in. For example, it's almost expected to have one or more of the actresses nude – in this film, the only nudity comes from Dan Shor, a lingering shot of him from behind. I wouldn't be the first person to mention that father and son seem more like a bickering gay couple – and I'll say no more than ask you to consider the implications of the film's ending, which I will of course not reveal. Murphy, Shor and Dey Young give solid performances but the show is stolen by sinister turns from Fiona Lewis and Arthur Dignam (the latter in a role originally offered to Klaus Kinski).

Michael Laughlin went on to make Strange Invaders, a 50s-inflected SF film, also co-scripted by Condon and with many of the same actors as Strange Behavior. There is as yet no Strange trilogy – Laughlin's third and most recent film as director is called Mesmerized. Condon went on to write and direct Candyman II, Gods and Monsters (winning an Oscar for his screenplay), Kinsey and Dreamgirls.


Strange Behavior is released by Synapse on an all-regions DVD-9 disc.

The DVD transfer is in the original ratio of 2.35:1 and widescreen-enhanced. The result is a little soft, especially in the darker scenes. Some of this may have to do with the combination of a low budget and anamorphic lenses, resulting in less sharpness than might have been achieved. It's an acceptable picture, but one which will no doubt suffer on more demanding viewing equipment. Ther e is some very minor print damage in a few scenes. A comparison follows: Synapse's NTSC edition first, PAL from Umbrella second.

The soundtrack is in mono, the original English-language track and a Spanish dub. Fortunately, Synapse have resisted the urge to remix the film into 5.1. Mono it was, and mono it stays – dialogue, effects and Tangerine Dream's score all well balanced. No subtitles are available, which is a shame.

The audio commentary features Bill Condon, Dan Shor and Dey Young, carried over from an earlier release by Elite Entertainment. This was recorded about five years ago - In the Cut, the 2003 film based on a novel by this film's production designer Susanna Moore (also appearing on screen as a waitress) is mentioned as just being about to come out. (This commentary is the major difference between this 2008 Synapse release and the 2004 Umbrella Dead Kids release in Australia. The latter has no commentary but instead has a four-minute introduction by Antony Ginnane.) Michael Laughlin was meant to take part but was delayed in flying over from his home in Hawaii. This is a good-humoured conversation, with Condon cringing at his baby-faced appearance from twenty-plus years before, Shor at the sight of his bare backside, and Young at every gore scene.

There are two deleted scenes (totalling 2:06), one featuring Louise Fletcher and the other showing Michael Murphy and questioning the father of the first victim. Bill Condon supplies an optional commentary, which is not present on the Australian disc although the two deleted scenes are.

A trailer gallery features the US Strange Behavior trailer and the Australian Dead Kids trailer, plus those for Synapse's simultaneous releases of Patrick, Thirst and Syngenor. The extras are rounded off by a stills gallery and filmographies for the principal cast and crew. The latter go up to 2002, also a giveaway when this DVD master was put together.

Along with the differences noted above, the Umbrella edition has a different selection of trailers, namely those Ginnane productions already released: Harlequin, Patrick, Snapshot, The Survivor, Turkey Shoot and Thirst. The stills gallery is different as well.

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