Unlike a lot of low-bud­get hor­ror films from the turn of the ‘80s, Dead Kids (best known in the U.S. as Strange Behavior) got a lot of pos­i­tive notices from crit­ics.  It’s not too hard to see why.  The first film from the team of direc­tor Michael Laughlin and screen­writer Bill Condon is much more art­sy than a lot of its com­peti­tors from that era. It pur­sues gen­re con­ven­tions in its own unortho­dox way, mix­ing slash­er film ele­ments with a dash of vin­tage “mad sci­en­tist” hor­ror to cre­ate its own dis­tinc­tive riff on the gen­re.

DeadKids-pos1Dead Kids starts like a slash­er film, estab­lish­ing a sleepy, anony­mous heart­land America town where peo­ple are start­ing to sud­den­ly dis­ap­pear — and the audi­ence is allowed to see a silent, off-screen killer is bump­ing them off.  As local sher­iff John Brady (Michael Murphy) turns his atten­tion to the killings, his son Pete (Dan Shor) is doing some schem­ing to get mon­ey.  He wants to attend the local col­lege but his dad wants him to go to school out of state. 

To get the mon­ey for the local col­lege appli­ca­tion, Pete offers him­self up as a guinea pig for a sci­ence pro­gram run by mys­te­ri­ous pro­fes­sor Gwen Parkinson (Fiona Lewis).  What seems like harm­less tests at first soon take on an omi­nous shad­ing — and as the bod­ies con­tin­ue to pile up, Sheriff Brady sus­pects it might have some­thing to do with a years-old local crime that involved Parkinson’s old men­tor.  This sets up a finale that mix­es weird sci­ence with slash­er sus­pense — and more than a lit­tle odd­ball dark humor.

Dead Kids under­stands the styl­is­tic moves of the slash­er movie well: Louis Horvath’s sleek Cinemascope lens­ing is deployed to achieve a Halloween-style effect, right down to hav­ing from peo­ple sud­den­ly enter­ing from the side of the frame for a jump-scare, and Tangerine Dream’s syn­th score that pro­vides the expect­ed analog-elec­ton­ic eerieness.  The story’s peri­od­ic stalk-and-slash bits are staged in a spar­tan but effec­tiDeadKids-01vely chore­o­graphed style that seals the clas­sic-slash­er vibe.

However, Laugh­lin and Condon are capa­ble of more than just knife-kill antics and they fre­quent­ly add a sub­ver­sive edge to the pro­ceed­ings by mak­ing them fun­nier and quirkier than you might expect.  The clev­er plot­ting keeps the view­er on their toes and the dia­logue has a sar­cas­tic, off-hand sense of wit that makes dia­logue exchanges that could have been between-shocks filler into gen­uine­ly amus­ing moments.  Laughlin also throws in some wit­ty flour­ish­es, like a killer who wears a Tor Johnson mask and a moment at a teen par­ty where the teens sud­den­ly start danc­ing in a chore­o­graphed style that makes the film feel like a new-wave ver­sion of Grease for a few min­utes.

It’s also worth not­ing that the mad sci­en­tist ele­ment of the plot real­ly gives it a unique fla­vor, cre­at­ing a sub­gen­re-blend that becomes more impor­tant as the film pro­gress­es and allows for some inter­est­ing shocks in the third act.  The one quib­ble with the film from a sto­ry stand­point is that the end­ing doesn’t take time to pay off all the quirky ele­ments that have been set up.  That said, the film’s left-of-cen­ter style is charmDeadKids-pos2ing enough to car­ry it past the nar­ra­tive bumps and the film’s over­all effect is odd­ly charm­ing.

Finally, Dead Kids also boasts an above-aver­age cast that plays a big part in estab­lish­ing the film’s sense of dead­pan-weirdo humor.  Murphy shows a nice­ly sub­tle sense of comic tim­ing but can lend dra­mat­ic weight when the time comes while Shor does an excel­lent job of con­veying the qui­et­ly hor­ri­fic effects of the doctor’s exper­i­ments.  Lewis is both gor­geous and chilly as the mys­te­ri­ous doc­tor and Louise Fletcher pops up on the story’s fringes, lend­ing a lit­tle moth­er­ly warmth as the sheriff’s long­time steady girl­friend. 

Elsewhere, the film is lit­tered with fan­tas­tic sup­port­ing per­for­mances.  Marc McClure steals a few sce­nes as Pete’s goof­ball best friend, Dey Young makes a like­ably sar­cas­tic roman­tic inter­est for Pete and gen­re vet Scott Brady turns up for a few fun sce­nes as an out-of-town cop who helps the sher­iff.

In short, Dead Kids remains a fun sur­prise for hor­ror fans weary with the pre­dictabil­i­ty of the slash­er film.  This film def­i­nite­ly zigs when you expect it to zag and the quirky sense of humor will give it added appeal for cult movie fans who don’t nor­mal­ly go in for hor­ror.

 

Dead Kids Trailer from Severin Films on Vimeo.