Judge Patrick Bromley dreads kids...except his own.
It's the dead of night and everybody's asleep—almost everybody.
After years of only reading about the horror film Dead Kids (usually under its alternate title, Strange Behavior), I'm finally able to see the movie thanks to the new Blu-ray from Severin Films. It was worth the wait—mostly.
Facts of the Case
Something is wrong in the sleepy Illinois town of Galesburg. The mayor's son has gone missing, kicking off a string of bizarre incidents that eventually lead to murder. A policeman (Michael Murphy, Batman Returns) investigates the murders, but there doesn't seem to be any common thread—each one appears to have been committed by someone else. Eventually, the investigation leads to a series of experiments being done at the university which may involve the policeman's son Pete (Dan Shor, Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure).
Watching the 1981 sci-fi horror film Dead Kids, I was reminded of the very first time I saw Gary Sherman's Dead and Buried. Both are excellent horror movies that aren't particularly well known outside of the genre—and are barely even known within it. Both establish a terrific sense of place, creating quiet towns that mask something sinister. Both slowly reveal the mystery of what's going on with a kind of horrible inevitability. Both rely heavily on the trope of the mad scientist conducting experiments. Though it was released in 1981 (the same year as Dead Kids), Dead and Buried is one of my favorite horror discoveries of the last 10 years. It's good company for Dead Kids to be in.
This is the first produced screenplay by writer (and eventually director) Bill Condon. While he's best known these days for musicals (he wrote Chicago and directed Dreamgirls) or for closing out the Twilight franchise, what many people might not realize is that Condon is an old-school horror movie geek. This is the guy who made a biopic of Frankenstein director James Whale (the brilliant Gods and Monsters). He directed Candyman: Farewell to the Flesh, the sequel to 1992's Candyman. And before he had ever made a name for himself, he wrote Dead Kids.
Even the title of the film (the original title, not Strange Behavior) is clever, since Halloween and Friday the 13th had helped create an entire subgenre of "Dead Kid" movies. Condon doesn't bury the lede. In fact, there are little touches and knowing homages to horror spread across the film, whether it's the Tor Johnson (best known as Lobo in Ed Wood's Plan 9 from Outer Space) mask one character wears while stalking a victim to the quiet Midwestern feel of Galesburg, which might as well be the neighboring town to John Carpenter's Haddonfield. Dead Kids is a horror movie that's very aware of the fact it's a horror movie, but never gets bogged down in cutesy references or "meta" commentary.
Things go along pretty spectacularly for two-thirds of the film, really, before it all peters out at the climax. This is a slower-paced, quieter horror film—one we expect will cut loose at the finish line. Without spoiling anything, Dead Kids never really does, and the answers to the mystery it introduces are obvious at best, disappointing at worst. It's not enough to undo the creepy setup, the unsettling mood or the atmosphere that director Michael Laughlin establishes, but it does keep Dead Kids out of the "classic" realm, destined to forever remain in the "pretty good movie you probably haven't seen" camp.
The movie receives a solid if uneven HD transfer. The 1080p HD image sports decent color reproduction and great detail in some scenes, but goes incredibly soft in others—though this could very well be a source issue and not a transfer problem. There's also a significant amount of dirt and debris noticeable, though never enough to become a distraction from what is otherwise a fine image. The lossless mono soundtrack delivers the dialogue clearly and does a good job of showcasing the wonderful Tangerine Dream score (for which I am a total sucker and which is available to hear isolated on a separate track).
Severin's new Blu-ray of Dead Kids ports over all the extras from their 2008 "Special Edition" DVD release and adds a few new ones to make it more worth upgrading. The original commentary with writer Bill Condon and stars Dan Shor and Dey Young is included, and it's a very entertaining, loose and informative overview of the production. Severin has included a new commentary as well with director and co-writer Michael Laughlin, which is denoted on the disc jacket as having been recorded on Skype. There's a reason for the heads up. The quality of the recording is very inconsistent, making it tough to get through at times. That, coupled with the fact that Laughlin is speaking alone without anyone to bounce off of, makes the commentary a chore to get through even though there's some good information included.
Next up is a new featurette, "The Effects of Strange Behavior" (why the producers used the alternate title for this piece I couldn't possibly say). Presented in 1080p HD, this interview with makeup effects artist Craig Reardon (responsible for everything from Poltergeist to The Goonies to Dick Tracy) is a great overview of the movie's icky effects and general production. Also included are a pair of theatrical trailers and a standard definition DVD copy of the film.
Dead Kids is a textbook sleeper—little seen and little known, but very interesting and very cool. It's a horror movie with some great atmosphere, a solid mystery and a couple of memorably unsettling sequences. Genre aficionados looking for something different would do well to give it a chance.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Severin Films
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