Review Date: February 24, 2011
Released by: Synapse Films
Release date: 10/28/2008
Region 0, NTSC
Widescreen 2.35:1 | 16x9: Yes
What do you do with your career after winning an Oscar for writing Gods and Monsters
and then gaining serious critical accolades for directing movies like Kinsey
and Dream Girls
? In the case of Bill Condon, you raise eyebrows by announcing that you’re going to direct the final two entries in the Twilight
saga, to both cheers and a few jeers (like many men I’ve been forced by a woman to sit through these films against my will, but with Condon at the helm I am no longer quite so afraid at having to watch parts four and five in the near future). With him taking over the reins of a popular genre-mixing franchise, now seems like an appropriate time to step back thirty years or so and re-examine his very first movie in any capacity, another genre-mixing entity that sports a screenplay written by Bill Condon when he was in his mid-twenties.
We open in a little town in the hinterlands of Illinois, a hamlet named Galesburg whose only distinction seems to be that it is home to Galesburg College, a small but well respected institution with a very well funded psychology department. The chief of police in Galesburg is widower John Brady (Michael Murphy
), whose wife was a member of that psychology department before dying almost twenty years earlier, leaving him to raise their son Pete (Dan Shor
) alone. Pete is now a high school senior getting ready to pick out an institution of higher education. He wants to stay in town and attend Galesburg College, but his father thinks he should get out and see the world outside Illinois, and thus refuses to help his son pay the application fee for the college. Fortunately for Pete his best friend Oliver (Marc McClure
) knows a way to make money quick: the college's psychology department is conducting two-day research experiments on young volunteers and paying them $200 for it.
Still though, the psychology department at Galesburg College is an unusual place. For many years it was lorded over by an eccentric faculty member named Dr. LeSange (Arthur Dignam
), who conducted many bizarre research experiments. LeSange himself is long dead, but he continues to live on in the form of filmed lectures, which are still shown to students at the college. Currently the department is run by Dr. Gwen Parkinson (Fiona Lewis
), who gives experimental pills and injections to any student looking to earn the $200. Pete signs up to be a test subject, but does not tell his father, knowing that his dad does not think very highly of anyone at the psychology department.
Meanwhile, a wave of violent attacks has been sweeping over Galesburg. It starts when the mayor’s son goes missing; he is later found dead and mutilated and dressed up like a scarecrow in a field. Then at a party a teenager named Waldo (Jim Boelsen
) has his throat cut by a masked assailant. The attacker then assaults his date and almost kills her before being chased away. After that the child of another of the town’s families, along with a housekeeper, is brutally murdered. The forensic evidence and eyewitness testimony points to a different killer in each case, and Chief Brady is forced to bring in out of town help in the form of a Chicago homicide detective named Shea (Scott Brady
). Soon the chief realizes that the young people who were murdered were the children of men who had taken his side in a dispute with the late Dr. LeSange, who he had blamed for his wife’s death. Whatever is going on it all points back to the college. But can Chief Brady unravel the mystery before his son falls into the clutches of the psychology department as well?
It has been alleged by some that the 1998 thriller Disturbing Behavior
, which starred a young Katie Holmes at the peak of her TV star popularity, is more or less an unofficial remake of this film. Bill Condon himself holds this view, and there is some circumstantial evidence to support it. In addition to their similar titles, both productions are set in small towns and deal with illegal experiments on the local young people conducted by smarmy academics. It is certainly possible that screenwriter Scott Rosenberg had seen Strange Behavior
– he would have been exactly the right age to have seen it at the drive-in in high school – and may have copied it, perhaps even unconsciously. The 1998 film was not exactly a masterpiece, although it did effectively tap into the wave of paranoia about teen violence and delinquency that was sweeping the country at the time. Ironically this film, made seventeen years earlier, feels much less dated in many ways. Rather than locking into a specific time period, it represents a bridge between generations, a late 1950’s style horror story told in the vein of an early 80’s slasher film. And as horror movie it works very well, with several violent set pieces that are not for the squeamish, particularly the murder of the Waldo character and the pursuit of his date, who has her Achilles’ tendon slashed and is chased into a swimming pool. Unable to swim and grasping onto ropes draped across the pool, the masked killer cuts each line and almost drowns her before help comes.
is not a perfect movie, but it is largely superior to many other early 80’s horror films. This was not a big budget production, but the attention to detail is most impressive. Though filmed in New Zealand, the small town Illinois location is extremely convincing, and other than a few local performers who have trouble suppressing their Kiwi accents, the casual observer would never know that this was filmed in another country. That attention to detail carries over into other aspects of the production. When we first meet Chief Brady he is shown talking on the phone and shaving, and ends up cutting himself, necessitating a piece of toilet paper to be placed over the wound. Then the next to last scene shows Brady with another piece of toilet paper on his face, confirming our suspicion that he is the kind of man who often cuts his face while shaving. In another scene, when Brady decides to exhume the body of Dr. LeSange, it takes a realistic amount of time for him to use a crowbar to pry a sealed panel off his sarcophagus. When he pulls the coffin out, it looks as if he’s really trying to move something very heavy.
Under the direction of Michael Laughlin the film moves along at a good pace and rarely drags, although it can be said that the characters sometimes lack intimacy thanks to Laughlin’s excessive use of widescreen compositions. In the commentary track included here the participants talk about how Laughlin shot only a minimal amount of coverage as a deliberate stylistic choice, and many scenes are presented as long master takes. The widescreen framing is certainly effective, but the major characters are given few close-ups, and supporting characters are hardly given any at all. Besides Scott Brady the cast also includes several other veteran performers, including Oscar winner Louise Fletcher (playing Chief Brady’s girlfriend) and prolific character actor Charles Lane (playing Brady’s deputy). Fletcher is quite good, but the filming style calls attention to the fact that Bill Condon’s screenplay gives her character almost nothing to do. Charles Lane and Scott Brady are both given decent sized supporting roles and memorable lines, but both are largely relegated to the sides and background of the frame, and thus a viewer will come away feeling like both men were barely even in the film. Laughlin’s compositions are not static, but a wider variety of shots might have allowed his editor to take full advantage of the actor’s talents.
Despite this flaw, Strange Behavior
is still a good example of early 80’s independent horror. It has an admirable script for a first-time writer and good actors to bring its realistic characters to life. It is also at times shockingly violent and gruesome. All in all it an above average and entertaining little flick, and if you have not seen it yet I advise you to check it out pronto.
was originally released on DVD by Elite Entertainment in 2003; this may or may not be the same transfer. The film is presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio, and is enhanced for 16x9 televisions. Image quality is actually very good, and the film actually looks a bit newer than thirty years. The progressive scan transfer sports beautifully rendered colors and a sharp, detailed image that brings out the lush greenery and deep blue skies of the New Zealand locations. Blacks are deep and dark, but shadow detail is generally rendered well. The film elements show some minor wear and tear, with occasional specks, splices and scratches, but overall it’s nothing too bothersome.
The film is presented in Dolby 2.0 Mono, and sounds good for its age. This is a thirty year-old soundtrack and it sounds a tad flat at times, but dialogue is clearly reproduced and there’s no audible background noise or distortion and Tangerine Dream’s excellent music score sounds great.
A Spanish language track, also in 2.0 Mono, is also included.
The principal extra is a running commentary track with Bill Condon, star Dan Shor and co-star Dey Young (who plays the love interest in the film). The track was originally recorded for the Elite DVD in what must have been late 2002 or so. Condon does the most talking and serves as an informal moderator for Shor and Young, both of whom apparently had not seen the movie in many years. They marvel at being able to watch it for the first time in widescreen in two decades and have a lot of fun reminiscing about the location shoot in New Zealand. Condon explains that the choice to shoot in New Zealand was dictated by the fact that the money was coming from there and how he discovered that Auckland looked like a small midwestern town. They also share remembrances of working with actors like Scott Brady, Louise Fletcher and Fiona Lewis. The track has a few quiet spots where the participants watch the movie, but they are few and far between.
Also included are two brief deleted scenes, both of excellent audio and video quality, and both featuring optional commentary by Bill Condon. The supplements then wrap up with an isolated music track for the film, an admirably lengthy stills gallery of production photos and promotional art, some extensive filmographies for the cast and crew, two trailers for the film (one under its original working title of Dead Kids
) and trailers for Patrick
, all of which are also available from Synapse Films.
is a refreshing mix of early 80’s slasher moments combined with a plot that would have been a little more at home in a 50’s AIP or Allied Artists movie. It received middling distribution when it was new, but the 2003 Elite DVD, and this newer disc from Synapse, have given it some much needed exposure to a new generation of viewers. The audio/visual quality of this release is good, and the supplements ported over from the Elite disc make this a recommended purchase to all.
Movie – B
Image Quality – B+
Sound – B
Supplements – B+
- Running Time – 1 hour 39 minutes
- Rated R
- Chapter Stops
- 1 Disc
- English 2.0 Mono
- Spanish 2.0 Mono
- Audio commentary with Bill Condon, Dan Shor and Dey Young
- Deleted scenes with optional commentary
- Isolated music score
- Stills gallery