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.

Horror on the Lens: Dr. Phibes Rises Again (dir by Robert Fuest)


Since yesterday’s horror on the lens was The Abominable Dr. Phibes, it only seems logical that today’s should be the sequel to that film, 1972’s Dr. Phibes Rises Again.  Would you believe that, before I actually found the film on YouTube, I thought this film was called Dr. Phibes Rides Again?  Personally, I think Rides Again sounds better than Rises Again but what do I know?

All that matters is that Vincent Price is back!  Be sure to check out Gary’s review of Dr. Phibes Rises Again when you get the chance.

And watch the movie below!

Enjoy!

Vincent Price Goes to Camp in DR. PHIBES RISES AGAIN (AIP 1972)


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Since 1971’s THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES  was such a big hit, American-International Pictures immediately readied a sequel for their #1 horror star, Vincent Price. But like most sequels, DR. PHIBES RISES AGAIN isn’t nearly as good as the unique original, despite the highly stylized Art Deco sets and the presence of Robert Quarry, who the studio had begun grooming as Price’s successor beginning with COUNT YORGA, VAMPIRE. The murders (for the most part) just aren’t as monstrous, and too much comedy in director Robert Feust’s script (co-written with Robert Blees) turn things high camp rather than scary.

Price is good, as always, bringing the demented Dr. Anton Phibes back from the grave. LAUGH-IN announcer Gary Owens recaps the first film via clips, letting us know Phibes escaped both death and the police by putting himself in suspended animation. Returning with loyal servant Vulnavia (who’s now played by Valli Kemp, replacing a then-pregnant Virginia North), Phibes…

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Danger Is Their Business: STUNTS (New Line Cinema 1977)


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With the success of films like WHITE LIGHTING, CANNONBALL, DEATH RACE 2000, and SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT (not to mention the continuing fascination with Evel Knenevel), movies revolving around stunts and stuntmen were big box office in the 1970’s. New Line Cinema took note and produced STUNTS, a murder mystery about stuntmen being killed off that gives us a behind-the-scenes look at low-budget filmmaking in addition to a good cast and well-staged action.

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When stuntman Greg Wilson’s hanging from a helicopter gag goes horribly awry, resulting in him plummeting to his death, his brother Glen arrives on the set determined to do the stunt himself and investigate Greg’s demise. Along the way he picks up B.J. Parswell, an attractive reporter doing a story on stuntmen. Glen’s fellow stuntmen start getting picked off one by one in gruesome “accidents”, and he must find the killer before he becomes next.

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This basic variation on “Ten…

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44 Days of Paranoia #39: The Fury (dir by Brian DePalma)


For our latest entry in the 44 Days of Paranoia, let’s take a look at one of the silliest films ever made, Brian DePalma’s 1978 horror/thriller hybrid The Fury.

The Fury opens on a beach in Israel.  CIA veteran Peter (Kirk Douglas, who grimaces up a storm) is hanging out with his teenage son Robin (Andrew Stevens) and his friend and colleague Ben Childress (John Cassavetes).  Two things quickly become apparent.

First off, Robin has psychic powers.  We know this because Peter is obsessed with protecting him from being captured by a shadowy government agency that wants to use his power as a weapon.

And secondly, Ben is evil.  We know that Ben’s evil because he’s played by John Cassavetes.  As one of the first truly independent filmmakers, Cassavetes would often raise the money to make his fiercely individualistic films by playing villains in bad B-movies, like this one.

Ben, in fact, is so evil that he’s arranged for terrorists to attack the beach.  After Peter is apparently killed in a ludicrously violent gunfight, Ben takes off with Robin.

However, Peter is not dead!  Somehow, despite the fact that both the beach and the ocean were pretty much blown up with him on it, Peter survived and now, he’s looking for his son.  Peter makes his way to Chicago where he calls up his girlfriend, Hester (Carrie Snodgress), and says things like, “I want your body, baby.”

Hester, meanwhile, works at the Paragon Clinic, which is run by Dr. James McKeever (Charles Durning) who, himself, is secretly working for Ben.  The Paragon Clinic is a front to try to discover other teenage psychics and to turn them into weapons as well.  The newest patient is Gillian (Amy Irving), a teenage girl who might be able to help Peter track down his son.

Of course, what Peter doesn’t take into account is that, in his absence, Robin has turned into a power-mad sociopath who spends his time doing things like killing tourists at amusing parks…

Wow, that’s a lot of plot, isn’t it?  And, with all of that, I haven’t even gotten into what happens during the second half of the film!

The Fury is an enjoyably silly film, an awkward attempt to combine DePalma’s previous film, Carrie, with a paranoia-fueled political thriller.  There’s a certain charm to a film that takes itself so seriously and yet, at the same time, manages to be totally over-the-top and ludicrous.

For example, just consider the performances of the high-powered cast and the fact that none of the actors appear to be acting in the same film.  Playing a character who is a bit of a hero by default (because, seriously, how stupid did he have to be to not realize that Ben was evil to begin with), Kirk Douglas grimaces so manfully that Peter’s stupidity almost starts to feel like a satiric comment on hyper-masculinity.  John Cassavetes, on the other hand, is so disdainful of the film that he actually rolls his eyes while delivering some of his more melodramatic lines.  Meanwhile, Carrie Snodgress is forced to say things like, “Here comes the Pony Express!” and Charles Durning brings the full weight of his talent to deliver lines like, “If you’re having your monthlies, I don’t want you near the patient.”

And finally, there’s Amy Irving.  In DePalma’s Carrie, Irving played Sue Snell, the sole survivor of a psychic rampage.  In The Fury, Irving gets to play the psychic and she gives such a dramatic and emotional performance that you almost get the idea that she was trying to challenge Sissy Spacek.  “This is how you play a psychic, Sissy!” she seems to be shouting.  Of course, the big difference is that Carrie was actually a good film whereas The Fury is a bad film that happens to be watchable.

Finally, no review of The Fury is complete without talking about Brian DePalma’s direction.  To put it lightly, Brian DePalma directs the Hell out of The Fury and the effect is something like what an episode of Agents of SHIELD would look like if directed by Martin Scorsese.  The entire film is a collection of tracking shots, zoom lenses, and sweeping overhead shots with the camera only stopping long enough to linger over scenes of violence and spilled blood.  In perhaps the film’s most ludicrous scene, Amy Irving runs away from the clinic in slow motion while the orchestral score plays out on the soundtrack.  We get close-ups of Irving’s face and close-ups of the faces of her pursuers.  One character gets shot multiple times but we don’t hear the gunshots.  Instead, we only hear the music and watch as the character overacts and dies in slow motion.  It’s almost as if DePalma was trying to win a bet by achieving the most counter-productive use of slow motion in film history.

Ultimately, The Fury is so thoroughly silly and over-the-top that it simply has to be seen.

Other Entries In The 44 Days of Paranoia 

  1. Clonus
  2. Executive Action
  3. Winter Kills
  4. Interview With The Assassin
  5. The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald
  6. JFK
  7. Beyond The Doors
  8. Three Days of the Condor
  9. They Saved Hitler’s Brain
  10. The Intruder
  11. Police, Adjective
  12. Burn After Reading
  13. Quiz Show
  14. Flying Blind
  15. God Told Me To
  16. Wag the Dog
  17. Cheaters
  18. Scream and Scream Again
  19. Capricorn One
  20. Seven Days In May
  21. Broken City
  22. Suddenly
  23. Pickup on South Street
  24. The Informer
  25. Chinatown
  26. Compliance
  27. The Lives of Others
  28. The Departed
  29. A Face In The Crowd
  30. Nixon
  31. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
  32. The Purge
  33. The Stepford Wives
  34. Saboteur
  35. A Dark Truth
  36. The Fugitive
  37. The Day of Jackal
  38. Z