Edgar Froese died last week. Movie fans might not immediately recognize the name, but they most certainly know his work. As the founder and only continuous member of the electronic musical group Tangerine Dream, Froese helped dozens of films, from the Tom Cruise vehicle Risky Business to, well, the other Tom Cruise vehicle Legend. Tangerine Dream’s music worked especially well within the context of science fiction and horror films, with the group providing the soundtracks to such movies as Near Dark, Firestarter, The Keep, and Spasms. In 1981, Tangerine Dream contributed its inimitable sonic stylings to a budding little Ozploitation flick called Strange Behavior.
Strange Behavior is about a town in Illinois that has a problem with high school students being killed. The sheriff, John Brady (Michael Murphy from Phase IV), is too distracted by the death of his wife to solve the murders, and turns to his new girlfriend, Barbara (Louise Fletcher from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest), for solace. Meanwhile, Brady’s son, Pete (Dan Shor, who played Billy the Kid in Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure) needs money, so he goes with his friend, Oliver (Marc McClure, better known as Jimmy Olsen from the Superman movies), to a laboratory that gives cash to kids who submit to a couple of experiments. At the institute, Pete sits through a lecture on a television screen by a Dr. Le Sange (The Devil’s Playground’s Arthur Dignam) before being given a drug by another doctor, Dr. Gwen Parkinson (The Fury’s Fiona Lewis), that will supposedly make him smarter. The drug does increase his intelligence, but also makes Dr. Parkinson able to control his actions. Like she has done with several teens before, the malicious woman programs Pete to be a killing machine. Sheriff Brady, Barbara, and Pete’s girlfriend, Caroline (Dey Young from The Serpent and the Rainbow), have to figure out the evil doctor’s plan before Pete can hurt anyone…or himself.
Writer/director Michael Laughlin (Mesmerized) and co-writer Bill Condon (Gods and Monsters) had plans to do a whole “Strange” trilogy, but those plans were scrapped after the second installment, Strange Invaders, flopped, and Strange Behavior is, therefore, just a standalone film. Originally going by the much more obvious title Dead Kids, Strange Behavior is essentially a twisted high-school movie, kind of like a John Hughes film filtered through the eyes of David Cronenberg. Indeed, it has all of the trappings of a teen flick, with classrooms and parties, but has serious horror and science fiction overtones. The story is ingenious, even if the execution is a little off; Strange Behavior should be more popular of a film than its cult status implies.
Led by Edgar Froese, Tangerine Dream supplied the score to Strange Behavior. The spacey electronic music helps to set the mood and atmosphere of the film, but the score is also accessible on its own; at times, the music sounds like it could be an instrumental new age jazz album. The soundtrack is not as percussive as the typical Tangerine Dream score (or the typical film score, for that matter), instead making liberal use of surreal instruments like Moog synthesizers, Theremins, and mellotrons with just enough guitar tossed in to give things a rocking edge. Because Strange Behavior is a teen movie, the incidental music is augmented in certain scenes by popular songs by Lou Christie, Pop Mechanix, and The Birthday Party, but it’s Tangerine Dream’s background score that is most memorable.
Of course, there’s more to Strange Behavior than simply the music. The film was shot by cinematographer Louis Horvath (Psycho à Go-Go, Brain of Blood), and for being made in 1981, it follows quite a few of the unwritten rules of the slasher movie. The kill scenes are particularly suspenseful, with Horvath making great use of point-of-view and over-the-shoulder shots to let the audience see the terror in the victims’ eyes. The kills are creative, too; one memorable scene has the killer chase his would-be victim into a swimming pool, where she tries to avoid him under the water while he waits for her to surface. Although it borders heavily on science fiction, Louis Horvath’s photography never lets the viewer forget that they’re watching a horror film.
There’s plenty of blood and guts in Strange Behavior, but the effects are fairly rudimentary. Done by Kevin Chisnall (The Tommyknockers) and Craig Reardon (Eaten Alive, Poltergeist), the special effects makeup is all practical magician-type stuff that relies on choppy editing to hide the flaws with results that vary from scene to scene. Some of the pacing gets awkward with the sloppy cutting, but there are some fun moments. One of the most effective bits is also one of the simplest; the brainwashed Pete urinates blood all over a toilet, the effect achieved by the squirting of a blood mixture from a device that is hidden by Pete’s body as the camera looks over his shoulder. Another cool bit involves Parkinson sticking a huge needle in Pete’s eye, the visual trickery courtesy of a retractable hypodermic. The makeup effects may be crude, but they’re effective in places.
The future of Tangerine Dream is uncertain, but it’s hard to imagine the group without Edgar Froese leading the charge. Whatever the future holds, the group has left a legacy in its wake that includes big budget Hollywood hits as well as cult films like Strange Behavior.