Color, 1981, 101 / 99m.
Directed by Michael Laughlin
Starring Michael Murphy, Louise Fletcher, Dan Shor, Fiona Lewis, Arthur Dignam, Dey Young, Marc McClure, Scott Brady, Charles Lane, Elizabeth Cheshire
Severin (Blu-ray & DVD) (US R0 HD/NTSC), Synapse, Elite (DVD) (US R0 NTSC) / WS (2.35:1) (16:9)
While slasher films were taking over the box office in the early '80s, a handful of films decided to use the hack-and-slash format to try something a little different. Easily one of the quirkiest of these was Dead Kids, better known to American viewers as Strange Behavior, which shipped a handful of American actors over to New Zealand for an often dreamlike story of small town teenage mind control. Though it starts off like a typical film of the era with a kid getting knifed in silhouette, this is far closer in temperament to the same year's Dead and Buried (which also happens to feature an iconic image involving a syringe and a very vulnerable human eyeball).
While townspeople are getting bumped off at night by otherwise peaceful teenagers, oblivious high school student Pete Brady (Shor) is happily living with his widower dad, police chief John (Murphy). Encouraged by his friend Oliver (Superman's McClure), the two decide to enroll in an experimental program after seeing a wild demonstration involving a chicken's willpower being completely controlled. Heading the research is a beautiful but sinister scientist, Gwen (The Fury's Lewis), whose pretty receptionist, Caroline (Young), doesn't seem to think that anything suspicious is going on behind closed doors. However, the link between the murders and this secret program soon becomes all too clear...
Much of the charm of this film lies in the charismatic performances by almost everyone involved, with only Louise Fletcher largely wasted as Murphy's girlfriend. An actor who deserved a much bigger career, Shor (who also appeared in Tron and went on to play Billy the Kid in Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure) has solid chemistry with Young, still cute as a button a couple of years after Rock 'n' Roll High School, and the spooky-eyed Lewis makes the most of her villainous role while getting some juicy monologues as part of the deal. The credits behind the camera are no less interesting, starting with an oddball script co-written by future Oscar winner (and, uh, Twilight series helmer) Bill Condon (Gods and Monsters) and director Michael Laughlin, who followed this up with the equally spacey sci-fi pastiche Strange Invaders in 1983. Oh, and the soundtrack was provided by none other than German electronic pioneers Tangerine Dream, the same year as their score for Michael Mann's Thief.
Shot in very wide scope, Dead Kids was one of the most notorious casualties of the pan-and-scan VHS era with a slew of unwatchable releases sloppily transferred from the World Northal U.S. release prints. Dull, dim, and brutally cropped to the point of incomprehensibility on all four sides, the film suffered a serious blow to its reputation in the process, with the worst offender being an EP-speed atrocity from the iffy label Lettuce Entertain You. A much-needed widescreen version finally bowed on DVD from Elite Entertainment in 2003, improving dramatically in every department over previous transfers. At the time it was completely satisfying, though more on that in a moment. That disc also featured a buoyant audio commentary with Condon, Shor, and Young, who have a great time watching the film for the first time widescreen in two decades. Among the many topics covered are the genesis of the script, the pros and cons of shooting in New Zealand, and the reason Shor's cred in West Hollywood was immediately established with one infamous shot. However, none of them can really shed much light on the film's most perplexing scene in which all the kids get together for a party dressed up as 1960s TV characters and dance around to Lou Christie's "Lightning Strikes." (On the other hand, major bonus points for the soundtrack's use of Pop Mechanix's '80s New Zealand pop gem, "Jumping Out a Window.") Also included on the DVD were a pair of minor deleted scenes, an isolated score track and alternate Spanish audio, a stills gallery, and the U.S. and international theatrical trailers. That same disc was later reissued as part of an Elite boxed set with Patrick and Thirst, while the same extras and transfer were later reissued by Synapse in 2008 on DVD. Various other DVDs featuring minor variations in the supplements also popped up in Germany, the UK, and Australia, most just featuring the movie and the commentary.
Now we jump ahead to 2014, with the film switching labels once again to Severin Films for a dual-format Blu-ray and DVD edition. While the previous (and only) widescreen version was good for its era, the new HD one from the original negative is, all things considered, stunning. The formerly hazy cast is now almost entirely gone, and black levels are much deeper with a drastically increased sense of depth. The dimly lit opening scene still doesn't look great (and was borderline unwatchable on 35mm), but after that it's smooth sailing all around. It's worth noting that the lenses used in many shots (especially the demonstration with the chicken) cause some blurring on the peripheral edges of the frame; that's a factor in the original cinematography and not a fault of the transfer itself. A significant amount of additional picture information is also visible on the bottom and particularly both sides; for example, look at this shot from the DVD compared to the first frame grab above from the Blu-ray. The bit rate is kept very high throughout (usually hovering just under 30), and the DTS-HD mono audio also sounds great. Most interestingly, the packaging notes the usual 99-minute running time but this actually clocks in just over 101 minutes, since the two formerly deleted scenes (one involving Fletcher driving outside of town, the other with Murphy in a local market) have now been added back into the film. Thus, what you get here is actually a never-before-released expanded cut.
The original commentary, isolated score, and trailers are carried over here, but there's some new material as well. A second commentary with Laughlin is also included, and... well, the packaging features a tiny disclaimer that this was recorded via Skype, so you that should give you some idea of what to expect. It's often muffled and tinny, but there's some good material in here often tying in well with Condon's memories of creating the story and playing around with horror conventions of the era. Also new is an interview featurette with makeup artist Craig Reardon, who worked on this between his more famous gigs on The Funhouse and Poltergeist. He spends most of the time telling stories about this film, with stories involving malfunctioning tubes to the execution of that eyeball gag. He also points out his own fleeting cameo in the film and covers some of his other projects, including his work with Rick Baker on An American Werewolf in London and his particular fondness for the cult favorite The Gate. Some photos from his collection are great, too, showing off his handiwork on some of his more famous titles. All in all, a great release and definitely a solid upgrade all around.
Reviewed on February 21, 2014.