Movies From the Black Lagoon: Strange Behavior

Movies From the Black Lagoon
Strange Behavior - 1981,Rated R

A psychological experiment aimed at curbing undesired behaviors is to blame for a rash of killings in this sci-fi horror hybrid that ignores logic but provides plenty of entertainment.
The 80's saw way too many routine slasher movies cranked out by major studios but this one has a lot going for it. Sure it delivers on the splatter but it also features decent characterizations, a rural American setting, and superb music, from "Tangerine Dream." The film sports a stylized opening sequence that finds a young man enjoying some freedom when his parents head out for a date. He barely waits for the front door to close before lighting up a smoke and turning away from his homework. A power outage sends him downstairs where he lights a candle to seek out the power box but gets distracted when he observes that the candlelight is perfect for making shadow puppets. It's a harmless moment that turns to ice when another set of arms appear, clutching a knife, and proceed to stab him in the head. It's all done in silhouette and an obvious homage to the lord of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock. Director Michael Laughlin brings off several more Hitchcockian moments throughout the film and it elevates the proceedings far above the norm for an 80's shocker.
The film follows the town's sheriff, Brady, as he tries to unravel who's behind the murders, which show no sign of stopping. Meanwhile his son volunteers for a behavior modification program at the college's psychiatric lab.
Brady suspects that the psych lab is the root cause of what's going on though he has a history of his own with the facility. Seems his wife worked there until she died mysteriously after their son was born. Brady suspected that her boss, Dr. Le Sange, was to blame but the doc died too and only his legs were ever found (and later buried). While Brady struggles with the spate of murders his son gets a first hand look at the techniques being employed at the psych lab, now run by Le Sange's assistant Parkinson. The treatments they offer seem far from therapeutic and involve having an eight-inch needle inserted into one's eye.
They never explain why they deliver their drug this way but it make for a wince inducing moment that will have you squirming in your recliner.
By the time Brady figures out that Le Sange may still be alive his son is already at the doc's mercy and has been programmed to kill daddy. It makes for a tense showdown as Dad must try and break his son's psychiatric conditioning with only the love for his son as a weapon. The boy on the other hand is armed with a brain full of the doc's wonder drug and handgun.
This one is so well crafted that it's worth watching despite the fact that you've seen it all before. The filmmakers have a lot of fun with the material. First there's a daffy party scene that sees all of the teens attend dressed as TV Characters of the 60's and 70's. Despite their diverse costumes they all dance in the same, almost choreographed, rhythm-less fashion which is either a sly statement about our underlying conformity or just another example that
80's dances were stupid. A superb sequence finds a housekeeper frantically calling for an ambulance after she comes upon a teen with a severed arm. It's filmed in a medium shot that lets the viewer note that a closet door in the back round is slowly opening but the woman can't hear the creak of the hinges over her own labored breathing. That's pure Hitchcock as he delighted in letting the audience in on facts that his characters were oblivious too. The lab scenes are also pretty gruesome and there's even a killer who rocks a Tor Johnson mask.
All this and the whole thing was actually filmed in New Zealand (though most of the actors are American), which only adds to the surreal tone of the whole enterprise. Laughlin would return three years later with "Strange Invaders." It's also worth your time and is a clever take on the - alien invasion' flicks of the 1950s. Despite the quality of both films he has yet to make another but here's hoping he'll finish his "Strange" trilogy before too long.
Best Line: "I have to tell you about Ted. He was a mouse but I got sort of attached to him, maybe because he had a name. They dyed his hair then they shaved it off. They fed him till he couldn't move then they starved him. Then they castrated him."

Tom Doty occasionally emerges from the Lagoon to check his e-mail. If you'd like to get a message to him, write to: dotyfox@pennswoods.net.