The bizarre American-British-Ozploitation hybrid DEAD KIDS hits Blu-ray courtesy of Severin Films.
The sleepy town of Galesburg, Illinois is suddenly beset by a string of murders of local teenagers. Local sheriff John Brady (COUNT YORGA, VAMPIRE's Michael Murphy) is puzzled by the killings – themselves unheard of in this dying slice of Americana where the mayor is also the proprietor of the general store – which seem to have been committed by different murderers. Brady is also too busy with the case (as well as diner cook love interest Louise Fletcher[FLOWERS IN THE ATTIC]) to notice that his high school senior son Pete (Dan Shor, TRON) – along with some other local students – is earning money by volunteering for government-funded science experiments conducted at the local Galesburg College by Dr. Parkinson (Fiona Lewis, THE FURY), assistant to Dr. LeSange (Arthur Dignam, THE DREAMING) who died three years ago but is still on the faculty via a series of filmed lectures on his highly controversial operant conditioning experiments. As the bodies start to pile up, Brady starts to discover a link between the choice of victims and they mysterious Dr. LeSange who may still be alive with special plans for his son Pete.
With a title like DEAD KIDS – especially in 1981 – one can already guess that this isn't going to be your run-of-the-mill slasher film (although US distributor World Northal retitled it STRANGE BEHAVIOR). Although set in the Midwest, the film was shot in Auckland, New Zealand. While the locations will certainly seem alien to American viewers who have formed a certain portrait of the Midwest from slashers shot closer to home, the film doesn't quite have the expected ring of artificiality since its creators are actually American: writer Bill Condon (later director of SISTER, SISTER and GODS AND MONSTERS) and director Michael Laughlin (who would collaborate with Condon on STRANGE INVADERS and return to New Zealand with actors Shor and Murphy for the Jodie Foster/John Lithgow historical "true crime" film MESMERIZED). The choice of location had to do with pre-Hemdale partners actor-turned-producer David Hemmings' and partner John Daly's teaming up with Australian producers Anthony Ginnane and William Fayman, for whom Hemmings had appeared in HARLEQUIN and THIRST in addition to helming THE SURVIVOR (hence the film being considered Ozploitation).
While spiked with a series of increasingly grisly murders (and a couple creepy after-the-fact reveals and some squeamish details) – mostly of teenage characters – the narrative is fairly unpredictable even though we know fairly early on what is responsible for the killings. The set up may be a bit too leisurely, but the tense climax holds enough surprises to be worth the wait despite a more conventional resolution than one would have hoped for in an 1980s genre pic. Far more contributory to the off-kilter atmosphere is the mix of modern and vintage in the set design, wardrobe, props (including 1950s American automobiles from the local auto club), and even the choice of music (Lou Christie's "Lightning Strikes") for the party scene (in which the teens are dressed as characters from 1960s sitcoms). The Panavision lensing was the work of former Al Adamson regular Louis Horvath (BRAIN OF BLOOD), while the editing was performed by Petra von Oelffen (Bergman's FROM THE LIFE OF THE MARIONETTES). Marc McClure (SUPERMAN's Jimmy Olsen) is on hand as Pete's best friend, while Charles Lane (PETTICOAT JUNCTION's killjoy banker) plays Brady's deputy, and Scott Brady (SATAN'S SADISTS) appears briefly as a detective sent from Chicago.
DEAD KIDS was released here on tape as STRANGE BEHAVIOR in a dingey, fuzzy panned-and-scanned transfer from RCA/Columbia (although the film could also be found in some American video shops under its original title from Canadian label Lettuce Entertain You and PAL-converted dupes of the UK tape SMALL TOWN MASSACRE). Along with a number of Ginnane productions, DEAD KIDS was remastered for DVD in 2003 – as STRANGE BEHAVIOR – by Elite Entertainment with an anamorphic widescreen transfer and a commentary track (see below). While Elite's releases of DARK FORCES/HARLEQUIN (forthcoming on Blu-ray from Scorpion Releasing) and THIRST (also out this month on Blu-ray/DVD combo from Severin) had isolated tracks of the Brian May orchestral scores, Elite's STRANGE BEHAVIOR did not have one for the Tangerine Dream score. This was rectified when Synapse Films reissued the disc in 2008.
Severin's DEAD KIDS Blu-ray/DVD combo features a new 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC transfer framed at 2.35:1. As with the previous transfer, the edges of the frame in some wide angle shots are indistinct, and this may have more to do with the original Panavision photography (presumably the Australians were using older optics than the ones newly introduced stateside around this period) than a fault of the elements. The day exteriors look more overcast here than hazy (the actors recall the "twenty four hour magic hour" look of Auckland) and the night scenes are clearer (the combination of the better resolution and one particular night crane shot scaling the exterior of a house actually had me thinking here of HALLOWEEN where it had once recalled TENEBRE for me). The DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 mono track is in fine condition with some subtle sound effects and the quieter passages of Tangerine Dream's score coming through nicely. The isolated score is also featured in Dolby Digital 2.0 mono, containing the Tangerine Dream cues and the Pop Mechanix tune "Jumping Out a Window" but silent during the film's use of Lou Christie's "Lightning Strikes" or Pop Mechanix's "The Ritz" but featuring the other source music cues including Pop Mechanix's "Jumping Out a Window" (heard twice in the film) and "Shivers" by The Birthday Party (featuring Nick Cave). Severin's transfer runs about two minutes longer than the DVD releases because two short scenes (included on the previous DVD as extras with optional commentary by Condon, but those commentary snippets have not been integrated into the track) have been integrated back into the film. The first has Barbara driving into town and stopping to talk to a line worker about the power outages (this happens between the first murder and the scene introducing Brady and Pete), and the second is Brady's visit to the general store to see the mayor whose son (writer Condon) has disappeared.
Carried over from the DVD releases is an audio commentary with writer/associate producer Bill Condon and actors Dan Shor and Dey Young (SPONTANEOUS COMBUSTION), whose love interest character is even more incidental to the plot than Fletcher's, as they entertainingly recall the harried shoot (with the three disagreeing on whether it was four weeks or three months). Condon mentions some of the projects with Laughlin that were stuck in development at Avco Embassy (THE FOG and PHANTASM inspired them to develop a genre project) before getting involved with Hemdale and Ginnane who stipulated that the film had to be shot in New Zealand for less than a million dollars (Laughlin grew up in Illinois and felt Auckland looked enough like the Midwest). The three share some laughs over Shor's introductory scene, Young recalls how Condon recognized her from ROCK N' ROLL HIGH SCHOOL and told her he wrote this film's character for her, and Shor recalls being initially offered Marc McClure's role. Condon enthusiastically name-checks the supporting cast including Brady and Lane as well as Lewis and Dignam (who would later appear in Condon's GODS AND MONSTERS), and the contributions of Joanna Moore (production designer turned screenwriter and author of IN THE CUT).
Director Michael Laughlin was unavailable for the original commentary but appears hear on a second commentary track via telephone. He discusses how he met Condon (who had written a film article he admired), and that Condon had suggested he direct the film. They already had cinematographer Horvath and the lead actors cast, and knew Hemmings' partner John Daly before they became involved with Ginnane; however, he reveals that the choice of shooting on location in New Zealand had to do with shooting right away rather than waiting a few months for it to be summer in the Midwest. It's a drier discussion since Laughlin isn't commenting on the onscreen action directly but answering the moderator's questions. Laughlin expresses having been more concerned with making an audience-pleasing film than one for the critics but was pleased with the professional reception of it as well. They also discuss STRANGE INVADERS as something of a companion piece to DEAD KIDS. Just as Condon gives credit where credit is due to Laughlin in the other track, so too does Laughlin here on Condon's contributions (including the dance scene).
Also new to the package is an interview with make-up effects creator Craig Reardon (20:32) who had been working for Tom Burman. Burman was working on CAT PEOPLE and THE BEAST WITHIN, so he sent Reardon to do the work with only five days of lead time. Reardon created the prosthetic faces in Los Angeles but had to improvise the various knife wounds with materials on site in New Zealand and a box of materials sent by Burman. He recalls his inspiration for the life masks he made from THE LIST OF ADRIAN MESSENGER, a Universal production in which a number of stars performed heavily disguised in Bud Westmore prosthetics. He goes into good detail about how he achieved the needle to the eyeball scene which required more photographic trickery and sleight of hand than mechanical innovation. He also discusses the other gore scenes which he feels came off only "decently" with the exception of the climactic onscreen gore effects which disappointed him (he points out the shot in which you can see a thread holding a blood tube to a character's arm). The featurette also includes some bright behind the scenes photographs that show off the effects to lesser effect, as well as brief discussion of his subsequent work including POLTERGEIST, THE FUNHOUSE and AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON. Carried over from the DVD releases are the American STRANGE BEHAVIOR (1:44) and international DEAD KIDS (3:17) trailers. An additional DVD features the film and extras in standard definition. (Eric Cotenas)
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