Deep Dives

Slash Americana: Strange Behavior’s Eerie Charm

Slash Americana: <em>Strange Behavior</em>’s Eerie Charm

Every elliptical pleasure of Michael Laughlin’s Strange Behavior (a.k.a. Dead Kids, 1981)—the flattened post–Twilight Zone affect, the tableaux evoking Technicolor footage faded like old Polaroids, a host of cross-pollinated genre kinks—suggests outmoded code that’s been surreptitiously updated. Embracing dissociation as style and psychology, it plays with slasher devices and De Palma–esque thriller elements, while folding in science fiction, horror, and American pastoral archetypes. Laughlin and cowriter Bill Condon display a sangfroid sense of humor that’s doubly, deliciously anachronistic. Strange Behavior tweaks the past, but from the cryptic vantage of Twin Peaks and Donnie Darko: works that were still a decade or two in the future, as if it had cracked their passwords in advance. It nods (winks?) at the 1980s’ gory, R-rated slasher-knocking-off-teens paradigm, and its pervasive air of unease suggests a subconscious parallel to David Cronenberg’s emerging type of celluloid dysmorphia. Laughlin toys with elements that defined the zeitgeist and others that hadn’t surfaced yet.

The movie’s inscrutable aesthetic feels stumbled upon as much as developed, a matter of trial, error, luck, and environment. For instance, by setting it in Illinois, but deciding to film it in Auckland, New Zealand, and flying in a mainly American cast, Laughlin and Condon made the scenery double beautifully for vintage Middle America (they even found the right cars from a local collectors’ club), but with something always a touch askew. Minor characters sometimes have their voices dubbed, but Down Under accents keep slipping through at the margins. With a one-million-dollar budget and a one-month shooting schedule, there’s no disguising its B-movie status. Laughlin and Condon embrace the possibilities of less-is-more with the relish of a satiric Jacques Tourneur.

Right out of the gate, a crafty preamble walks us into the first murder, depicted as shadowplay. A teenager is left alone in a house and the power goes out. (He’s played by a boyish Condon, taking his first inadvertent baby steps toward the James Whale biopic Gods and Monsters.) The about-to-be-dead kid finds a candle and starts amusing himself by making hand-shadow puppets on the wall. He doesn’t realize a figure is following him. The intruder’s shadow brings a knife down on the boy. The killer is revealed to be another innocent-looking teen, who blows out the candle, whoosh. Cut to black.

Nice touch, but the kicker is that we still hear the dying teenager’s death gurgles softly in the background as bucolic landscapes appear. This is the two-tiered strategy throughout the movie: There is this surface narrative going on, with all the regular elements of dread, violence, romance, mystery, and even a jump-in-the-night Tangerine Dream score—possibly their most creepily atmospheric film work. It delivers the predictable jolts, but in unpredictable, oblique ways, executed with a stealth eccentricity you can never quite pin down. Then there’s another level that feels adjacent to mundane, everyday interactions, an outward “normalcy” that’s off by a few subterranean degrees. Like a set of standardized conventions that has been replicated in a laboratory, only with something inconspicuous in their DNA mutated.

So we get a standard rugged sheriff, played by the Robert Altman favorite Michael Murphy, and his handsome smart-aleck son (Dan Shor, who wears his cockiness like a bull’s-eye), as protagonists. But unexplained, uninflected details keep cropping up. Father and son are introduced when dad wakes the kid, goes back to shaving, and the boy walks bare-assed past dad into the shower. Moments like these are subliminal double takes, hovering between blankness and stone-faced insanity.

The sheriff’s old deputy opens a minifridge at the office that’s packed with what looks like a hundred cans of beer. His girlfriend/caregiver (Louise Fletcher) and his son later have an affectionate chat, while in the background he lies passed out in an overstuffed armchair. At the end of the exchange, the son kisses her in a casual, highly overfamiliar way. It doesn’t imply anything titillating, only that strange is the norm here and boundaries are porous. If aliens made a training film on learning to pass for human, these mistranslated moments would be their examples of “natural.” (In 1983, Laughlin and Condon’s next film in a planned but ultimately unfinished “Strange” trilogy, Strange Invaders, took up the Body Snatchers premise and ran with it.)

No surprise, then, that the local coroner not only looks more like a farmer (his smock might as well be overalls), but is played by the Los Angeles pop artist Billy Al Bengston. Speaking of pop, Condon loved the old Lou Christie song “Lightnin’ Strikes,” so he convinced Laughlin to stage a full choreographed dance routine to it at a teenage party. A costume party no less, featuring sixties American TV characters: a Flying Nun, Flintstones Fred and Wilma (also Betty Rubble), Robin and Batman, Hoss from Bonanza, etc. Meanwhile, a stalker in a Rondo Hatton mask is closing in on a couple parked nearby . . .

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