Michael Laughlin’s 1981 slasher “Dead Kids” also pays homage to 1950s-era pulp horror & sci-fi

By on May 20, 2019

In Michael Laughlin’s strangely languid slasher Dead Kids (1981), an icily seductive doctor — working out of the psychology lab of a small town college in Galesburg, Illinois — turns high school teens into psychotic mind-controlled killers.

Watch this shock-filled pyschodrama — UK authorities confiscated copies of it during their “video nasty” panic — in our brand new Severin Films section (read more) over on Night Flight Plus.

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Laughlin’s directorial debut — featuring a hypnotic score by Tangerine Dream — was given a short theatrical release in the U.S. in October 1981, re-titled as Strange Behavior.

The film’s distributor, World Northal, thought its original title might remind audiences of the Atlanta Child Murders, a major national news story from mid-1979 until May ’81.

The new title seems appropriate, though, considering the odd soporific tone during the first half of Dead Kids, which creeps along until suddenly you find yourself in the midst of murder, mayhem and mystery.

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Lauglin co-wrote the script with fellow Illinois native and future Oscar-winning screenwriter/director Bill Condon.

They’d planned for it to be the first installment of their Illinois-set “Strange Trilogy,” but after Laughlin’s Strange Invaders failed to attract audiences, plans to complete the trilogy’s third film were trashed.

Condon — in his mid-twenties at the time — appears in the film briefly early on as “Bryan Morgan,” who is studying at home one night when the electricity goes out.

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Morgan lights up a candle in a dark basement and gets distracted making shadow puppets before a knife-wielding assailant repeatedly stabs him in the head (the killer is quickly revealed to the audience).

Solving Morgan’s murder falls to “John Brady,” Galesburg’s Chief of Police, played by the always congenial Michael Murphy (who the writer of this blog got to know briefly while working on a 1996 network TV movie).

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Single-parent Brady is still struggling to make sense of his life after his wife Catherine died under mysterious circumstances years earlier, and also struggling to raise his teenage son “Peter Brady” (Dan Shor).

Brady believes his late wife’s former boss, “Dr. Le Sange” (Arthur Dignam, in a role turned down by Klaus Kinski) is somehow responsible for her death, but then Le Sange died shortly afterwards, and the mystery was never solved.

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Brady’s only recently begun to date another longtime resident of the town, gum-smacking local waitress “Barbara Moorehead” (a criminally-underused Louise Fletcher, who’d already won an Oscar for playing “Nurse Ratched” in Miloš Forman‘s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest).

Brady is so out of his depth finding the slasher that a reinforcement detective from Chicago is sent down to Galesburg.

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Peter’s best friend and high school classmate “Oliver Myeroff” (Marc McClure), meanwhile, suggests that to raise money needed for his college application fees he should volunteer, like he did, for the two-day paid experimental program in the local college’s psych department.

He’ll be paid two hundred dollars to undergo “chemical conditioning.”

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They both sit in on a college class taught by Le Sange’s ice cold professorial assistant “Gwen Parkinson” (a strangely-coifed Fiona Lewis).

She shows the students a black & white videotape of one of Le Sange’s behavioral science lectures, where he describes the action we see taking place at the front of the class, an experiment with a mind-controlled chicken.

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When Peter arrives at the lab the following day, he ends up falling for Parkinson’s secretary, “Caroline” (Dey Young, younger sister of actress Leigh Taylor-Young).

Peter learns too late that students who have undergone the bizarre after-hours brain experiments are actually the killers responsible for the brutal knife-kills in Galesburg (one even wears a Tor Johnson mask!).

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The supporting cast features lots of recognizable character actors, including Scott Brady (“Shea”) and Charles Lane (“Donovan”).

Read more about Dead Kids below.

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Producer/director Michael Laughlin

A decade before trying his hand at directing, Michael Laughlin — who was raised in the central Illinois farming community of Minonk — had already produced a handful of films, including Monte Hellman’s epic road trip saga Two-Lane Blacktop (1971).

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By the early ’80s, Laughlin was living in New York City when he sought out magazine writer Bill Condon to see if he’d like to collaborate with him on screenplays.

Their first project produced Dead Kids, which combined ’80s splatter and slasher themes with iconic 1950s-era pulp horror & sci-fi ideas (particularly “mad scientists” and experiments gone horribly wrong).

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Lauglin and Condon’s script featured frequent sly nods to elements of pure midwest Americana, including characters with vintage ’50s wardrobe and hairstyles, as well as classic diners and cars (including a red Chevy convertible and a blue T-bird) and lots of product placement (Coca-Cola, KFC, etc.).

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Our favorite scene, though, was the New Wave-ish graduation party that Peter and his pal Oliver attend, where attendees are dressed up like characters from 1960’s TV series like “The Flying Nun,” “The Munsters,”“My Favorite Martian,” “I Dream of Jeannie,” “The Flintstones,” “Bonanza,” and “Batman.”

At one point, while we hear Lou Christie’s mid-Sixties hit “Lightnin’ Strikes” (Condon’s favorite song), everyone spontaneously breaks into a synchronized dance number.

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Dead Kids was a co-production with New Zealand and Australian financing (which is why it qualifies as “Ozploitation”).

The film was famously shot on location amid the widescreen wide-open spaces and the lush green suburbs of Auckland, New Zealand (namely Remuera, Epsom and Avondale).

The producers reportedly claimed they couldn’t find any “authentic” American small town locales in Illinois in 1980.

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Watch Dead Kids and other great cult titles from Severin Films — on Night Flight Plus.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.