Friday, June 30, 2017

Trailer Match: DEAD KIDS

Movie trailers can be beautiful things.  Two and a half minute diamonds, where each scene is a precisely cut facet meant to dazzle and catch the eye.  Not all of them are winners, of course, but when they are done just right, they can be more memorable than the movies they promote.  For decades I was sure I’d seen THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES, until I picked up the Blu Ray and realized it was only the trailer, which I had seen a million times on HBO as a kid, that I was remembering.  That trailer was so perfectly contained and tidy, it was all I needed.  The full movie turned out to be pretty good, but the trailer was magic.  
Usually I don’t write about a movie unless I’ve seen it at least once before, but I wanted to see if this one would live up to my trailer expectations.   Can Michael Laughlin’s 1981 mind control horror DEAD KIDS work as well in 99 minutes as it does in 3:20?

The Capsule:
Strange things are afoot in the sleepy Midwestern town of Galesburg.  All the teens are eager to sign up for some harmless psychological experiments down at the local college, including Pete (Dan Shor) and his best friend, Jimmy Olsen (really named Oliver, but since the actor is Marc McClure from SUPERMAN, good luck calling him anything else).  The money is good, but Pete is experiencing a few side effects, like mood swings, black outs, and occasionally pissing blood.  Plus, his police chief dad, John (Michael Murphy) thinks the experiments might be connected to the string of teen murders that has cropped up recently.  Everyone thinks John is being paranoid, but the deeper he digs, the more he is convinced it all leads back to the long dead professor who ruined his life.  Paranoid or not, unless he’s careful, he might be the next person on the slab, possibly at the hands of his own son.

DEAD KIDS is better known in the states as STRANGE BEHAVIOR.  It’s not a bad title, but come on, DEAD KIDS is a showstopper.  That title gives you pause, regardless of what your reaction to it is.  It was the same thing for me with the DEAD KIDS trailer (the STRANGE BEHAVIOR one is nowhere near as interesting).  I first saw it a while ago in a 42nd St. Trailer compilation.  It’s hard to say why I liked it so much.  There’s nothing revolutionary about it, just another slasher/mind control mystery type deal with little dashes of humor, but something about it seemed a little off.  It has a lot of strange, disturbing imagery thrown in with the lighter stuff.  The most memorable part is a musical bit where a bunch of kids in costumes are doing this dance number to Lou Christie’s Lightning Strikes.  The song is one of those ‘60s standards that you’ve heard a million times.  I never gave two shits about that song before, but it completely changes in this context.  It was weird and anachronistic and, like the title, it stood out.  I couldn’t quite figure out what its deal was.

I have to admit, my favorite things in the movie were also my favorite things from the trailer.  The costume dance party was only slightly less strange in context than out (I still don't know why they were all in costumes or why they made a whole synchronized number of a twenty year old song).  Thanks to the trailer, I had a good idea how the movie was going to play out.  There were a few surprises, though.  The biggest surprise was that the movie, set in a small town outside of Chicago, was really filmed in New Zealand.  You know, where they shot THE LORD OF THE RINGS.  One of the most cinematically beautiful places on Earth was used as a stand-in for Illinois.  I’m sure Auckland is just a normal town, and it did look dull and Midwestern enough for me to completely buy into it, but come on.  Turning New Zealand into Illinois is like hiring Ryan Gosling to play Michael Myers.  Seems like a waste to cover all that up.  No disrespect to Illinois, you are a lovely state and full of interesting things, but you’re no New Zealand.  

The movie uses some very standard slasher tropes, even for 1981.  There is a masked killer (in a Tor Johnson mask!), lots of stalking, nervous victims bumbling in the dark, killer POV shots, and a fair amount of literal slashing.  The unusual turn is that, for the most part, it pulls a gender swap.  Most of the victims are male.  One girl is chased after her boyfriend is killed, but she gets away and is never in danger again.  Someone’s mom buys it, but only because she is in the wrong place at the wrong time.  One of the killers (not a spoiler, that fact is established early on) is even a woman.  

Most shocking, the first (and possibly only) naked body the camera ogles is that of the main character, Pete.  There is a gratuitous butt shot as he heads into the bathroom were his dad is shaving.  So it’s both gratuitous and weird.  

I don’t think it was an attempt to be enlightened or fair to the opposite sex, though, because Pete can be a real jerk.  He blatantly flirts with a girl at the party right in front of another one that obviously has a crush on him.  His idea of making a good impression is to wait for the receptionist he likes, Caroline (Dey Young), to close up her creepy office for the night, grab her from behind and scare the shit out of her.  For some reason she decides to go on a date with him as opposed to macing him, kicking him in the nuts, and calling the cops.  He doesn’t get much better on the date, trying to order for her at the restaurant (she doesn’t let him) and stealing the cigarette she just lit.  Some of this may be due to the experimental drug he took earlier, but I think mostly he’s just a dick.

His dad isn’t that much better.  John’s been stringing along his girlfriend, Barbara (Louise Fletcher), for years.  She constantly cooks for him and Pete, trying to earn his love with pies, only to be barely acknowledged.  Instead of trying to calm her down when she is freaking out because he’s being so paranoid, John drags her to a graveyard and has her help exhume a body.  These are not the most sensitive cats around, is what I’m saying. 
The trailer does a good job highlighting the best character in the movie, the mysterious Professor Parkinson, who runs the experimental program at the college.  It is clear she has sinister intentions from the moment she is introduce, with her icy, wicked smile and perfect Sean Young in BLADE RUNNER hairdo.  Like a classic femme fatale, she has Pete wrapped around her finger from their first meeting.  She seduces him with the promise of quick and easy cash and drugs.  When Pete gets second thoughts about the procedure after being strapped down to a chair, Parkinson reassures him by explaining he is participating in a “very exciting experiment.” Then she injects a syringe INTO HIS EYEBALL!  He should have held out for more than 100 bucks for that experiment.

She handles John just as effortlessly.  She calmly listens to his rants about her predecessor, Dr. Le Sange (Arthur Dignam), which only makes him look crazier in front of everyone.  Parkinson is not the least bit concerned, even though she has his son restrained just down the hall.

It is fun watching Pete slowly get paler and more erratic, all the while trying to play it cool with his girlfriend.  Look, honey, people sometimes piss blood, it’s nothing unusual.  Strangely, Pete is the only kid from the batch of test subjects to have that kind of physical reactions.  The intent may have been to represent Pete’s resistance to the nefarious mental conditioning.  I guess his pal Jimmy Olsen didn’t have as much of a moral dilemma about offing the school bully, because he looked fine the whole time.

Things take a weird turn in the final act when it comes to the mysterious Dr. Le Sange.  Eventually, John’s obsession with the deceased doctor, which involves his late wife, is explained. However, we seem to be missing a lot of the backstory, like what exactly the doctor was doing years ago that caused such a scandal.   It's hard to understand why John makes him out to be some kind of war criminal when all we see him do is overwork some of the staff and perform brain surgery on a chicken.  

[Spoilers Ahead]  And when it is revealed that Le Sange isn’t really dead, things only become more confusing.  Pete, under the metal control of Parkinson, subdues his father and ties him down.  Then an old man in a wheelchair rises dramatically from the floor on an elevator platform, wheels over to John, and tears off his makeup.  It turns out that the old lab assistant from the beginning was really Le Sange all along!  Except, when we first saw the lab assistant, he clearly had both his legs, and Le Sange is now a double amputee.  He mentions something about having to sacrifice his legs for his plan, but there is zero explanation about why or when that happened.  There is nothing in the story that connects with this; it is just a bizarre detail thrown in for fun.  Is there a separate movie out there following the adventures of Le Sange that converged with this one at the end?

So how does the full film match up to my beloved trailer?  Pretty well, I'd say.  The off-kilter tone of the trailer carries through the entire running time, and surpasses it in places.  I love an oddball ending, which this certainly delivered.  Director Michael Laughlin created something just different enough to stand alone.  He would go on to make the similarly skewed STRANGE INVADERS (actually filmed in Illinois this time, but sadly not pretending to be New Zealand), but he never followed up on his planned STRANGE trilogy, which is a pity.  DEAD KIDS doesn't come together perfectly, but it provides a unique take on a traditional story.  Now if I could just get that damn Lou Christie song out of my head.

C Chaka

No comments:

Post a Comment