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.
Dead 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 effectively 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 charming 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.