The picture opened in 1981 to surprisingly strong reviews for a low-budget shocker, but suffered from being distributed by a small company (World Northal) that was about to go out of business.
Most of the movie’s miniscule cult following was the result of late-night cable showings of a butchered video transfer in which half of the carefully composed wide-screen images were cropped (in that pre-letterbox era).
The film was restored to all of its wide-screen glory on the DVD released a few years ago, but “Strange Behavior” is still awaiting a major rediscovery by fans of offbeat horror.
Condon and co-writer (and director) Michael Laughlin made their film in the middle of the slasher craze powered by “Halloween” and “Friday the 13th” (and all of their sequels and copies) but poked fun at the genre in a story that mixed scares and laughs.
“Strange Behavior” is set in a small downstate Illinois college town where a mad professor’s experiments are resulting in a wave of inexplicable teen killings. A new drug pioneered by the old loon (played by the great Australian actor Arthur Dignam) causes normal teens to become programmable killing machines with no memory of their heinous acts (ala “The Manchurian Candidate”).
Michael Murphy plays the sheriff of the town who has always blamed his wife’s death on something fishy that happened when she worked as an assistant to the professor. His college student son (Dan Shor) doesn’t realize the trouble he is about to get into when he signs up to be a test subject — he thinks it’s just an easy way to earn some extra money.
Condon and Laughlin keep us off-balance by telling the story in the style of a slightly campy 1950s B-horror movie — but with terrific performances by Murphy, Shor, Louise Fletcher as the sheriff’s girlfriend, and Fiona Lewis (above) as the professor’s icy assistant (who for no good reason, wears her hair in a 1940s style).
Laughlin uses the wide-screen brilliantly in long setpieces in which the shocks arrive from unexpected sources and the horror is deepened by the humor and warmth of the characters in peril.
“Strange Behavior” also contains goofy scenes that don’t advance the plot but are enormous fun to watch, especially a long teen party sequence that includes a rather elaborately choreographed dance to the tune of Lou Christie’s “Lightnin’ Strikes” (a foreshadowing of Condon’s work on “Chicago” and “Dreamgirls”?)
Laughlin and Condon demonstrate how far sheer talent can go on a bare-bones budget — they even talked the German group Tangerine Dream into supplying a very eerie and very beautiful score — but their movie deserves a lot more attention from horror movie cultists.