Horror Film Review: Strange Invaders (dir by Michael Laughlin)


In 1983, two years after the release of Strange Behavior, director Michael Laughlin and Bill Condon teamed up for another “strange” film.  Like their previous collaboration, this film was a combination of horror, science fiction, and satire.

The title of their latest collaboration?

Strange Invaders.

Strange Invaders opens in the 1950s, in a small, all-American town in Illinois.  Innocent children play in the street.  Clean-cut men stop off at the local diner and talk to the waitress (Fiona Lewis, the scientist from Strange Behavior).  Two teenagers (played by the stars of Strange Behavior, Dan Shor and Dey Young) sit in a car and listen to forbidden rock’n’roll music.  A lengthy title crawl informs us that, in the 1950s, Americans were happy and they were only worried about three things: communists, Elvis, and UFOs.  On schedule, a gigantic UFO suddenly appears over the town.

Twenty-five years later, mild-mannered Prof. Charles Bigelow (Paul Le Mat) teaches at a university and wonders just what exactly is going on with his ex-wife, Margaret (Diana Scarwid).  In order to attend her mother’s funeral, Margaret returned to the small Illinois town where she grew up.  When she doesn’t return, Charles decides to go to the town himself.  However, once he arrives, he discovers that the town appears to still be stuck in the 50s.  The townspeople are all polite but strangely unemotional and secretive.  Charles immediately suspects that something strange is happening.  When the towns people suddenly start shooting laser beams from their eyes, Charles realizes that they must be aliens!

Fleeing from the town, Charles checks all the newspapers for any reports of an alien invasion.  The only story he finds is in a cheap tabloid, The National Informer.  The author of the story, Betty Walker (Nancy Allen), claims that she just made the story up but Charles is convinced that she may have accidentally told the truth.  At first, Betty dismisses Charles as being crazy.  But then she’s visited by an Avon lady who looks just like the waitress from the small town and who can shoot laser beams.

Teaming up, Charles and Betty investigate the aliens and try to figure out just what exactly they’re doing on Earth.  It’s an investigation that leads them to not only a shadowy government operative (Louise Fletcher) but also a man (Michael Lerner) who claims that, years ago, he helplessly watched as his family was destroyed by aliens.

Like Strange Behavior, Strange Invaders is a … well, a strange film.  I have to admit that I prefer Behavior to Invaders.  The satire in Strange Invaders is a bit too heavy-handed and Paul Le Mat is not as strong a lead as Michael Murphy was in the first film.  I was a lot more impressed with Nancy Allen’s performance, if just because I related to both her skepticism and her sudden excitement to discover that her fake news might actually be real news.  I also liked Micheal Lerner, so much so that I almost wish that he and Le Mat had switched roles.  Finally, I have to say that Diana Scarwid’s performance was so bizarre that I’m not sure if she was brilliant or if she was terrible.  For her character, that worked well.

Strange Invaders gets better as it goes along.  At the start of the film, there are some parts that drag but the finale is genuinely exciting and clever.  If the film starts as a parody of 1950s alien invasion films, it ends as a satire of Spielbergian positivity.  It’s an uneven film but, ultimately, worth the time to watch.

 

Horror Film Review: Strange Behavior (a.k.a. Dead Kids) (dir by Michael Laughlin)


I want to tell you about one of my favorite horror films.  It’s a strange one and I think you might like it.

It’s a movie from 1981.  It was filmed in New Zealand, even though it takes place in a small town in the American midwest.  It was directed by Michael Laughlin and the screenplay was written by Bill Condon, who has since become a director of some note.  This was Condon’s first screenplay.  In Australia and Europe, this movie is known as Dead Kids.  In America, the title was changed to Strange Behavior.

Here, watch the trailer:

It’s a pretty good trailer, actually.  That said, as good as the trailer may be, it doesn’t even come close to revealing just what an odd film Strange Behavior actually is.  If David Lynch had followed up The Elephant Man by directing a slasher movie, chances are the end result would have looked something like Strange Behavior.

Here’s another scene that I want you watch.  It’s kind of a long scene, clocking in at 7 minutes.  But I want you to watch it because, in many ways, this scene is the epitome of Strange Behavior:

Strange Behavior is perhaps the only 80s slasher film to feature a totally random and totally choreographed dance number.  It comes out of nowhere but, in the world that this film creates, it somehow feels totally appropriate.  Of course, the nun is going to announce that she’s not wearing any underwear and then pretend to stab a guy in the back.  Of course, the cowboy’s going to throw up and then want to go out to his car with his date.  And of course, a bunch of people in costume are going to end up dancing to Lightnin’ Strikes.  In Strange Behavior, the strangest behavior is the only behavior that makes sense.

As for the film itself, it’s a mix of small town melodrama, slasher horror, and gentle satire.  Teenagers are being murdered by other teenagers and no one is sure why.  The chief of police, John Brady (played by character actor Michael Murphy, who gives a quietly authoritative performance that counters some of the weirdness of the rest of the movie), is trying to solve the crimes while trying to cope with the mysterious death of his wife.  His son, Pete (Dan Shor), is going to the local college, where classes are taught by a professor (Arthur Dignam) who died years ago but who filmed a few lectures before passing.  To make extra money, Pete does what many of the local teenagers do — he volunteers for medical experiments.  Researcher Gwen Parkinson (Fiona Lewis) oversees the experiments, handing out pills and occasionally administering a hypodermic needle to the eyes of a test subject.  Gwen is always cool, calm, and collected.  When one irate father draws a gun on her, Gwen quips, “I can’t stop you.  I don’t have a gun.”

But there’s more to this movie than just medical experiments and murder.  Strange Behavior is full of wonderfully eccentric supporting characters.  Other than John, there’s really nobody normal to be found in either the town or the movie.  Pete’s best friend, Oliver (Marc McClure), is cute and dorky.   Barbara (Louise Fletcher) just wants to marry John and live in a town where dead bodies don’t turn up in the middle of corn fields, propped up like scarecrows.  John’s best friend and fellow cop, Donovan (Charles Lane), has been around forever and has a great, no-nonsense approach to even the strangest of things.  When it becomes obvious that John is not going to be able to solve the murders on his own, big city cop Shea (Scott Brady) shows up and wanders ineffectually through the movie, spitting out hard-boiled dialogue like a refugee from a 1930s gangster flick.  And finally, receptionist Caroline (Dey Young) sits at her desk in the clinic, gossiping about the patients and smoking cigarette after cigarette.  Caroline is probably the smartest person in the movie.  As an administrative assistant, I appreciated that.

It’s an odd little movie, which is why I love it.  Laughlin, Condon, and the entire cast created a world where everything is just a little off-center.  It makes for terrifically entertaining and weird movie, one that works as both satire and straight horror.

Strange Behavior is a film that deserves to much better known than it currently is so my advice is go watch it and then tell you friends to watch it too.

A Movie A Day #206: Conflict of Interest (1993, directed by Gary Davis)


Conflict of Interest is a by-the-numbers direct-to-video movie about a tough cop named Mickey who is obsessed with taking down a drug dealer and club owner named Gideon.  Mickey is a widower.  Years ago, his wife was gunned down in front of him and his son.  His son is now a teenager with a motorcycle and a mullet.  Gideon hires Mickey’s son to work at one of his clubs and then frames him for murder.  Even though his superiors order him to back off, Mickey is determined to clear his son’s name.

Why should you watch Conflict of Interest?  How about this:

That’s Judd Nelson, going heavy on the sideburns and eyeliner in the role of Gideon.  I am not sure if this movie was filmed before or after the famous “puffy shirt” episode of Seinfeld.

Judd chews up and spits out every piece of scenery that he can get his hands on.  Matching Judd step-for-step is Alyssa Milano, who plays Eve.  She falls in love with Mickey’s son, even though she is already a member of Gideon’s harem.

Mickey is played by Christopher McDonald, who gets a rare lead role in Conflict of Interest.  McDonald may not be a household name but he is one of the great Hey, It’s That Guy actors.  Usually, he plays smarmy businessmen and game show hosts.  He’s a surprisingly good action hero in Conflict of Interest, though his mustache cannot begin to compete with Judd’s sideburns.

About as dumb as dumb can be, Conflict of Interest is enjoyably ridiculous.  Conflict of Interest may have been made in 1993 but it is an 80s film all the way through, the type of movie where almost every chase ends with someone’s car exploding.  Even Gideon’s nightclubs are “heavy metal clubs,” which are populated by people who would not have been out of place in Heavy Metal Parking Lot.

And then there’s the Judd power stare:

As we saw in Shattered If Your Kid’s On Drugs, the Judd power stare has the Burt Reynolds seal of approval:

Back to School #22: Rock ‘n’ Roll High School (dir by Allan Arkush)


Originally, when I started this series of Back to School reviews, I was planning on reviewing Grease.  After all, everyone has seen that film.  It’s on TV all the time.  (Looking in your direction, AMC.)  It’s a musical, which is a genre that I love but one which I also rarely seem to review.  The movie features a good performance from Stockard Channing.  It also has a lot of dancing and you know how much I love that.  And speaking of love, a lot of people seem to absolutely love Grease.

But, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that while others may love Grease, I don’t.  Oddly enough, I always seem to fool myself into thinking that it’s a fun movie but then I make the mistake of watching it whenever it pops up on AMC and every time, I am surprised to discover just how boring Grease really is.  The majority of the cast play their roles as if they’re still on a Broadway stage and projecting to the back of the house.  Olivia Newton-John is miscast.  John Travolta appears to be acting on auto pilot.  Both the songs and even Stockard Channing are never as good as I remembered.  Worst of all, the dance numbers are so ineptly staged and filmed that, half-the-time, you can’t even see what anyone’s doing with their feet.

While I certainly don’t have any problem writing a negative review (and check out my thoughts on Avatar if you doubt me), I wanted to end the 70s on a positive note.  So, instead of telling you that Grease isn’t good as many people seem to think, I want to recommend another film that, like Grease, features a lot of singing and dancing but which also happens to be a lot of more fun.

That film, of course, is the 1979 cult classic Rock ‘n’ Roll High School.

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Things are amiss at Vince Lombardi High School.  The students are so obsessed with rock and roll (and the music of the Ramones, in particular) that they have caused several principals to quit.  The hallways are a disorganized mess.  Student Riff Randall (P.J. Soles) spends all of her time having fantasies about the way that Joey Ramone eats pizza.  A strange students named Eaglebauer (Clint Howard) runs a shadowy company known as Eaglebauer Enterprises out of a smoke-filled boy’s restroom.  (He’s even got an administrative assistant to schedule meetings for him.)  Handsome jock Tom Roberts (Vincent Van Patten) can’t get a date, largely because he’s obsessed with Riff who is obsessed with the Ramones.  Little does Tom realize that Riff’s best friend, the sweet and intelligent Kate Rambeau (Dey Young), has a crush on him.

The school board hires a new principal to bring some peace to the high school.  Ms. Togar (Mary Woronov) is a strict and mentally unbalanced disciplinarian who, with the help of two apparently subhuman hall monitors, is determined to suppress any sort of fun, rebellion, or free thought.  Togar hates loud music, mostly because it causes white mice to spontaneously explode.  (When, late in the film, a human-sized white mouse — or he could have just been a very strange man wearing a white mouse costume, the film is ambiguous on this point — attempts to enter a Ramones concert, he’s turned away for his own good.  Until, of course, he reveals that he’s brought along headphones for his own protection…)

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In the end, it all comes down to this: Togar and her allies want to burn records.  Riff and the Ramones want to stop her.  And maybe blow up the school.  (David from Massacre at Central High would have been a fan of the Ramones.)

Rock ‘n’ Roll High School is an intentionally over-the-top film that both celebrates youthful rebellion while satirizing traditional high school films.  The jokes (which are a good combination of the silly and the genuinely clever) come non-stop, the actors all bring a lot of energy to their roles, and the entire film is just a lot of fun. As played by P.J. Soles, Riff Randall really is the ideal best friend and I imagine that a lot of boys in 1979 probably walked out of the theater with a huge crush on both P.J. Soles and Dey Young.  And finally, Mary Woronov gives a wonderfully demented performance as Ms. Togar.

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Rock ‘n’ Roll High School seems like the perfect film to end the 70s with.  Tomorrow, Back to School continues with the 80s!  So, if you’ve never seen Rock ‘n’ Roll High School before, watch it below!

10 (Plus) Of My Favorite DVD Commentary Tracks


It seems like I’m always taking a chance when I listen to a DVD commentary track.  Occasionally, a commentary track will make a bad film good and a good film even better.  Far too often, however, listening to a bad or boring commentary track will so totally ruin the experience of watching one of my favorite movies that I’ll never be able to enjoy that movie in the same way again.  I’ve learned to almost always involve any commentary track that involves anyone credited as being an “executive producer.”  They always want to tell you every single detail of what they had to do to raise the money to make the film.  Seriously, executive producers suck. 

However, there are more than a few commentary tracks that I could listen to over and over again.  Listed below are a few of them.

10) Last House On The Left (The Original) — Apparently, there’s a DVD of this film that features a commentary track in which stars David Hess and Fred Lincoln nearly come to blows while debating whether or not this movie should have been made.  The DVD I own doesn’t feature that commentary but it does feature a track featuring writer/director Wes Craven and producer Sean S. Cunningham.  The thing that I love about their commentary is that they both just come across as such nice, kinda nerdy guys.  You look at the disturbing images onscreen and then you hear Cunningham saying, “We shot this scene in my mom’s backyard.  There’s her swimming pool…”  Both Craven and Cunningham are remarkably honest about the film’s shortcomings (at one point, Craven listens to some of his more awkward dialogue and then says, “Apparently, I was obsessed with breasts…”) while, at the same time, putting the film’s controversy into the proper historical context.

9) Burnt Offerings — When Burnt Offerings, which is an occasionally interesting haunted house movie from 1976, was released on DVD, it came with a commentary track featuring director Dan Curtis, star Karen Black, and the guy who wrote the movie.  This commentary track holds a strange fascination for me because it, literally, is so mind-numbingly bad that I’m not convinced that it wasn’t meant to be some sort of parody of a bad commentary track.   It’s the commentary track equivalent of a car crash.  Curtis dominates the track which is a problem because he comes across like the type of grouchy old man that Ed Asner voiced in Up before his house floated away.  The screenwriter, whose name I cannot bring myself to look up, bravely insists that there’s a lot of nuance to his painfully simple-minded script.  Karen Black, meanwhile, tries to keep things positive.  The high point of the commentary comes when Black points out that one actor playing a menacing chauffeur is giving a good performance (which he is, the performance is the best part of the movie).  She asks who the actor is.  Curtis snaps back that he doesn’t know and then gets testy when Black continues to praise the performance.  Finally, Curtis snaps that the actor’s just some guy they found at an audition.  Actually, the actor is a veteran character actor named Anthony James who has accumulated nearly 100 credits and had a prominent supporting role in two best picture winners (In the Heat of the Night and Unforgiven).

8 ) Cannibal Ferox — This is a good example of a really unwatchable movie that’s made watchable by an entertaining commentary track.  The track is actually made up of two different tracks, one with co-star Giovanni Lombardo Radice and one with director Umberto Lenzi.  Lenzi loves the film and, speaking in broken English, happily defends every frame of it and goes so far as to compare the movie to a John Ford western.  The wonderfully erudite Radice, on the other hand, hates the movie and spends his entire track alternatively apologizing for the movie and wondering why anyone would possibly want to watch it.  My favorite moment comes when Radice, watching the characters onscreen move closer and closer to their bloody doom, says, “They’re all quite stupid, aren’t they?”

7) Race With The Devil Race with the Devil is an obscure but enjoyable drive-in movie from the 70s.  The DVD commentary is provided by costar Lara Parker who, along with providing a lot of behind-the-scenes information, also gets memorably catty when talking about some of her costars.  And, let’s be honest, that’s what most of us want to hear during a DVD commentary.

6) Anything featuring Tim Lucas — Tim Lucas is the world’s foremost authority on one of the greatest directors ever, Mario Bava.  Anchor Bay wisely recruited Lucas to provide commentary for all the Bava films they’ve released on DVD and, even when it comes to some of Bava’s lesser films, Lucas is always informative and insightful.  Perhaps even more importantly, Lucas obviously enjoys watching these movies as much as the rest of us.  Treat yourself and order the Mario Bava Collection Volume 1 and Volume 2.

5) Tropic Thunder — The commentary track here is provided by the film’s co-stars, Jack Black, Ben Stiller, and Robert Downey, Jr.  What makes it great is that Downey provides his commentary in character as Sgt. Osiris and spends almost the entire track beating up on Jack Black.  This is a rare case of a great movie that has an even greater commentary track.

4) Strange Behavior — This wonderfully offbeat slasher film from 1981 is one of the best movies that nobody seems to have heard of.  For that reason alone, you need to get the DVD and watch it.  Now.  As an added bonus, the DVD comes with a lively commentary track featuring co-stars Dan Shor and Dey Young and the film’s screenwriter, Bill Condon (who is now the director that Rob Marshall wishes he could be).  Along with providing a lot of fascinating behind-the-scenes trivia, the three of them also discuss how Young ended up getting seduced by the film’s star (Michael Murphy, who was several decades older), how shocked Condon was that nobody on the set seemed to realize that he’s gay, and why American actors have so much trouble speaking in any accent other than their own.  Most memorable is Young remembering the experience of sitting in a theater, seeing herself getting beaten up onscreen, and then listening as the people sitting around her cheered.

3) Imaginationland — As anyone who has ever listened to their South Park commentaries knows, Matt Stone and Trey Parker usually only offer up about five minutes of commentary per episode before falling silent.  Fortunately, those five minutes are usually hilarious and insightful.  Not only are Parker and Stone remarkably candid when talking about the strengths and weaknesses of their work but they also obviously enjoy hanging out with each other.  With the DVD release of South Park’s Imaginationland trilogy, Matt and Trey attempted to record a “full” 90-minute commentary track.  For the record, they manage to talk for 60 minutes before losing interest and ending the commentary.  However, that track is the funniest, most insightful 60 minutes that one could hope for.

2) Donnie Darko — The original DVD release of Donnie Darko came with 2 wonderful commentary tracks.  The first one features Richard Kelley and Jack Gyllenhaal, talking about the very metaphysical issues that the film addresses.  Having listened to the track, I’m still convinced that Kelley pretty much just made up the film as he went along but its still fascinating to the hear everything that was going on his mind while he was making the film.  However, as good as that first track is, I absolutely love and adore the second one because it features literally the entire cast of the movie.  Seriously, everyone from Drew Barrymore to Jena Malone to Holmes Osborne to the guy who played Frank the Bunny is featured on this track.  They watch the film, everyone comments on random things, and it’s difficult to keep track of who is saying what.  And that’s part of the fun.  It’s like watching the film at a party full of people who are a lot more interesting, funny, and likable than your own actual friends.

1) The Beyond — This movie, one of the greatest ever made, had one of the best casts in the history of Italian horror and the commentary here features two key members of that cast — Catriona MacColl and the late (and wonderful) David Warbeck.  The commentary, which I believe was actually recorded for a laserdisc edition of the film (though, to be honest, I’ve never actually seen a “laserdisc” and I have my doubts as to whether or not they actually ever existed), was recorded in 1997, shortly after the death of director Lucio Fulci and at a time when Warbeck himself was dying from cancer.  (Warbeck would pass away two weeks after recording this commentary).  This makes this commentary especially poignant.  Warbeck was, in many ways, the human face of Italian exploitation, a talented actor who probably deserved to be a bigger star but who was never ashamed of the films he ended up making.  This commentary — in which MacColl and Warbeck quite cheerfully recall discuss making this underrated movie — is as much a tribute to Warbeck as it is to Fulci.  Highpoint: MacColl pointing out all the scenes in which Warbeck nearly made her break out laughing.  My personal favorite is the scene (which made it into the final film) where Warbeck attempts to load a gun by shoving bullets down the barrel.  The wonderful thing about this track is that Warbeck and MacColl enjoy watching it too.