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Summer Camp: A Look Back at ‘Strange Behavior’

For those of you too young to remember, there was a genuine visceral thrill in determining what VHS tape to bring home from video stores in the early 1980s.  Be it by sleeve, standee, or clamshell, movie artwork in its ancillary life-after-cinemas, was sometimes the first way to discover a title.

Not surprisingly, many children of the be-kind-rewind generation have memories of films purely based on what we remember on the shelves, rather than what we put in the VCR.

Today, in an age of 4K remastered celebrations of the Witchblade or House movies, it’s humbling to find a younger generation embracing not only the films, but celebrating the retro-coolness of their original VHS packaging.  Even the most heartfelt deviantart tribute to Ghoulies 2 beats foreclosed warehouses of overstocked Vestron VHS discarded in landfills somewhere in New Mexico.

Not that I can prove that happened.

There’s an abundance of access to content, especially for Horror fans, these days.  For rights-holders, more obscure scary movies are having a revenge in their afterlife.  Titles like Evilspeak and The Final Terror get remastered for Blu-ray from Scream Factory, while over-the-top digital subscription service Shudder has progressively stocked their virtual shelves with more Giallo than there’s time for.

One such title that I can’t seem to remember passing by a box of is 1981’s Strange Behavior (aka Dead Kids), which is currently streaming on Shudder as well as Fandor.  It’s an under-the-radar flick worth watching.

Directed by Michael Laughlin, whose follow up film Strange Invaders certainly got its share of attention on video shelves (its timing was a tad better for the VCR boom), the movie is co-produced and written by Oscar winner Bob Condon (most recently the director of Beauty and the Beast).  It gets stranger from there.

Shot in New Zealand, and often times showing its roots with oddly matched post-production dialogue recording, the movie is essentially an homage to 1950s teenage horror films.  In particular, it’s obsessed with that brand of paranoia where science and technology moved into small-town America.  Those obsessed with this season’s relaunch of Twin Peaks on Showtime will be quite familiar with it.

Like Lynch’s amazing return to his TV town, things are a little off from the start of Strange Behavior.  First of all, the cast is top-notch, and worth geeking out over purely by their past and pre credits.  There’s a pre-X-Men Michael Murphy, Oscar winner Louise Fletcher still recovering from Exorcist II, a pre-Tron Dan Shor, a post-Rock ‘n’ Roll High School Dey Young, the penultimate character actor Charles Lane, and Jimmy Olsen himself, Marc McClure (before major McFly body parts started disappearing in Back to the Future).

Probably due to Lauglin’s commitment to the material, I’d say everyone’s a little too perfectly cast, and they play things as seriously as they do surreal.  This is a film that’s essentially rooted in both 50s cold war conspiracy and early 80s slasher style, so there’s a lot of stuff that shouldn’t work as well as it does.

Just to ice the cake, Tangerine Dream contributes to the film’s score, which is peppered with post-punk obscurities.  Oh, and there’s also a spontaneous, yet choreographed musical number to Lou Christie’s Lightnin’ Strikes.

I came into the film without any knowledge of it other than its inclusion in New York City’s Metrograph’s fantastic A to Z series of essential cinema.  I don’t want to give anything away in explaining more of the plot, any of the surprises, nor parts of the gore.

Every early 80s obscurity should be this enjoyable.

By the way, if you’re looking to double feature with something almost as unusual, yet not nearly as accomplished, do check out Deadly Blessing (1981), which is now streaming on Amazon Prime.  Ernest Borgnine as the leader of an evil neo-Hittite sect preys upon Sharon Stone in one of her first big-screen roles.

You’re welcome.

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