"Murder, mayhem and mystery strikes fear into a quiet college town.
Murder is unknown to the inhabitants of the Mid-western college town of Galesburg, Illinois, until teenager Lucy Brown is attacked by a knife wielding maniac at a fancy dress party. Her date, Waldo Davis, is slain before her eyes. The town is shocked, but for Police Department Chief, John Brady, this is only the prelude. Another high school kid, Bryan Morgan, is discovered - very dead and horribly mutilated.
Worse still, the Crime Lab pathologists are convinced two murderers are at large. Student Pete Brady, son of the Police Chief, is financing himself through college. He and his friend Oliver Myerhoff become interested in a research programme into a field of auto-suggestion first developed by the since deceased Dr Le Sange. At $100 per day Pete volunteers to take part in the research and finds that the lectures are those of Dr Le Sange in video cassette format.
Mrs Haskell, a cleaning lady, interrupts the dismembering of another student, but has time to telephone the police before being stabbed to death herself. The murder trail leads to the college psychiatry department's experiments."
DEAD KIDS really pushes the limits for being classed as a traditional slasher movie. Most of the post-HALOWEEN additions basically stuck with the lone-maniac stalks teenagers scenario; but Michael Laughlin’s impressive opus includes multiple killers and a completely authentic conclusion to an engaging mystery. Despite those blatant discrepancies however, it still wouldn’t seem right to class this amongst any other horror sub-category, as it does include many of the genre’s prominent trappings. One of the assassins sports a white mask and you’ll also find a shockingly large amount of cheese, which is no less than hilarious in places. The thing that really lifted this above many of its counterparts from the peak year of 1981, were the surprisingly strong performances from a refreshingly competent cast. Academy Award-winner Louise Fletcher and Michael Murphy lead respectively, while Dan Shor and Fiona Lewis provide credible youthful support. It also boasts a great periodic soundtrack, which includes tracks from Tangerine Dream and Lou Christie (more on that later). Unfortunately, on the down side, the frame cropping for videotape transfer from the cinematic release is no less than abysmal in places. There are times throughout the movie when the actor’s faces are completely cut from the screen, and one could be forgiven for initially believing that a cack-handed camera operator was at fault for the incompetent photography. The reality of the matter is that the leap from the silver screen to VCR certainly wasn’t kind to Laughlin’s spacious set-locations.
I remember many years ago, when I was only knee-high to a hubcap, noticing this suggestive cover signalling for my inspection like a beacon in the foggy night sky at my local video store. After checking the plot synopsis and wondering what words such as ‘mutilated’ could possibly mean, I decided that one-day I would have to pluck up the courage to actually purchase it and find out for myself. Of course, those movies rarely - if ever – terrified me as much as I had expected them to, but I kept that same copy right up until this day, and was indeed intrigued to see if my glowing memories had served me as well as I’d hoped for…
It opens with a youngster studying in his bedroom; his parents inform him that they’re leaving, so he sparks-up a sly cigarette and turns on the radio (cue some cheesy eighties grooves, via the Pop Mechanics!). He’s puffing away merrily, when all of a sudden; we’re thrown into darkness, courtesy of a convenient power-cut. To solve the problem, the teen heads downstairs, picking up a handy candle en-route and sparking it up with a lighter. With the small amount of light that emerges from the flickering flame, he begins making hand shapes in the shadows; only soon we learn that he isn’t going to be enjoying these creations on his own for much longer. Another silhouette appears, clenching a knife, and let me just state that those will be the last finger puppets that he’ll be making for the foreseeable future. Next we learn that this isn’t going to be a typical trip into whodunit’s-ville, because we see the killer’s face as he blows out the candle.
Soon after we meet our central family of characters that will guide us through the story, - the Bradys (no not the Brady bunch, unfortunately!) John (Michael Murphy) is the local Sheriff, who’s got some serious personal hygiene problems (well, would you cut your toenails at the kitchen table?). His son, Pete (Dan Shor) is an intelligent young student that’s debating his educational future and deciding which college that he wants to attend in the fall. His dad wants him to leave the area and pursue his career options elsewhere, but Pete has decided to stay rooted in his hometown of Galesburg. His only problem is that he doesn’t have enough money to submit his application, but thankfully his scrawny buddy Oliver, knows ‘a fast and easy way to make money’. The local Hospital is paying 200 dollars a time, for student’s participation in un-clarified medical experiments, which Ollie describes as two simple sessions. These scientists prove that they are well ahead of their game with a demonstration in which a dead professor manages to control the mind of a chicken to make it obey his every command. Ingenious stuff, I’m sure you’ll agree. An extremely sadistic-looking nurse called Miss Parkinson (Fiona Lewis) controls the moneymaking experiments, and Pete makes an appointment to visit her the following day.
The night before his date with the medic, Pete informs his mother in-law, Barbara (Louise Fletcher) that he’s got a party to attend; a fancy dress gathering no less, - and oh what a memorable celebration it turns out to be. One beaming female describes it as ‘an honour of independence’, which I guess is one way of putting it. A more descriptive term though, would be a no holds barred romp of amazingly sidesplitting comedy that will have even the most sinister viewers holding their guts with paroxysms of laughter. The highlight is when the teens begin to boogie and we get a wonderfully daft sequence in which all the comically dressed revellers do a synchronised dance routine that looks like it has been borrowed from GREASE, more than a slasher film. They start by doing the ‘locomotive’, before they take it in turns to jump in front of the camera and do the ‘hokey-cokey’ in quick succession (!) The song that invites this unforgettable sequence is no less than Lou Christie’s classic sixties dance hall favourite, Lightening Strikes. Falsetto king, Christie was notable because he was one of the very few vocalists to emerge between the death of Buddy Holly and the Beatles’ worldwide explosion as a teen idol, and sustain a strong career for a long time after. The musical months from1960 to 1963 are often referred to, as the ‘lost years’ because very few artists appeared around the time that were not crushed by the big-beat phenomenon that was launched by British bands such as The Rolling Stones and John Lennon and crew. There’s nothing that I can remember ever witnessing that compares to watching Batman and Robin taking it in turns to boogie, and its moments like those, which make this film so decidedly enjoyable. Anyway, the fun doesn’t last for too long, and soon we get back to more of what people were truly expecting - the horror side of things.
Cut to two youngsters that probably couldn’t handle watching any more grooving, because their sides had almost split, so they’ve headed out to the peaceful serenity of a parked car, in an attempt to escape the hilarity. We sail into traditional territory when Lucy rebuffs Waldo’s romantic advances, because she claims that she has to get home very soon and they should be leaving right about now. Once the budding lothario has learnt that he isn’t going to get anywhere that particular night, they decide to split; only that might not be such an easy task, as the car seems to be firmly rooted in the mud. Waldo jumps out to push, telling the strumpet to gun it, only his problems don’t end there. In fact, things get a whole lot worse or the unfortunate fella when he bumps into a masked maniac that stabs him in the throat with a large blade. Then we get a suspenseful chase through the woodland, as the psycho pursues the terrified female back to the party, making the effort to stab her in the ankle as he goes. His murderous intent is ruined when the partygoers hear her frantic screams, so the assassin decides to heel it from the scene very abruptly. Before he disappears into the pitch-black night, he removes his mask to reveal a face that we already know fairly well. And so the plot thickens...
The following morning, John interviews many of the teenagers - including the killer - but none of them has any recollection of the events that unfolded. He realises that he has a maniac roaming around the town, when Barbara discovers the mutilated body of the teen that was murdered in the opening scene, craftily disguised as a scarecrow (perhaps as a nod to DARK NIGHT OF THE SCARECROW (1981)?). Meanwhile, Pete keeps his appointment with the enigmatic nurse, which amounts to not a lot more than him taking a strange pill that he says, ‘makes him feel a little high’! Earning 100 dollars for getting stoned; that must be every student’s dream! To add to his good-fortune, he pulls a stunning blonde receptionist, Caroline (Dey Young) and the two go out for dinner, which results in the beginning of a microwave relationship. That night, another of the town’s teenagers and a cranky cleaner are murdered in a fairly taught sequence that mimics HALLOWEEN’s use of building fear from staging creepy occurrences in the background of the screen’s focal point (a door opening slowly behind the unsuspecting soon-to-be victim etc.) Due to previous experience, John decides that he knows what is behind this sudden spate of murderous mania, and heads off to investigate, which results in a fairly shocking showdown and an unexpected twist in the story…
DEAD KIDS has enough confidence in the strength of its truly shocking and fairly intelligent conclusion, not to ruin the rest of the movie with pointless false-scares and gratuitous gore. Although, saying that, there is at least one un-watchable scene, where Pete gets a four-inch syringe pushed into his eyeball, while strapped to a chair! It would be truly terrifying to viewers who have a strong phobia of medicinal needles, which is quite a common fear amongst non-diabetics. As I said before, this isn't really a traditional slasher movie, but it succeeds because it tries a refreshing alternate setting to a genre that was all ready beginning to grow tired, even that early on. Aside from the licensed tunes that may bring back fond memories for fans of nostalgia, we're also offered a neat acoustic guitar-based score that provides the film’s accompaniment; and a more typical synthesizer lick for the moments of horror. Although this is supposed to be set in Illinois, Chicago (HALLOWEEN?), it was actually filmed in New Zealand, explaining some of the beautiful shots of scenery that break up the story. The cast offer a few genuinely credible performances and the characters that they portray are fairly approachable and above all likeable, so that you feel for their individual torments. Laughlin also manages to build suspense in places, especially towards the finale with the will-he won’t-he cliffhanger.
Sadly, the chopped screen does cause a few viewing problems, and it’s clumsily edited to the point of aggravation in places. There are a few plot-holes that I can’t really tell you about without including a spoiler; but overall, it’s competently written and makes the most of the authentic ideas that it has on offer. The BBFC don’t admit to cutting anything from the murders, although there were a couple of suspicious jumps, which were impossible to tell whether they were the fault of lazy editing or outside censorship intervention?
All in all, I actually thoroughly enjoyed watching DEAD KIDS and certainly suggest that you hunt it out if you’re a fan of slashers or tacky eighties horror. It’s been OOP for quite a long while now, but you may be able to track down a copy under one of its four aliases, if you run a search with a video-finding agency. The fancy dress scene alone makes it worth a budget asking price, and it also boasts a few edge of your seat thrills that separate it from the influx of its more formulaic counterparts from ‘81. It certainly deserves a visit from people looking for a different take-on the genre.
BODYCOUNT 5 female:1 / male:41) Male stabbed with knife