[Originally published in Movietone News 33, July 1974]
To call Roman Polanski’s fourth feature film a mere spoof on vampire movies is as ridiculously shallow as to call it The Fearless Vampire Killers or: Pardon Me, But Your Teeth Are in My Neck. Polanski’s own title, DanceoftheVampires, far better suits this ambivalently comic, profoundly troubling sortie into cinema gothic. The villain in the case is the spectacularly myopic producer Martin Ransohoff, who cut some nine minutes from the original film (including some of the best sequences, if Ivan Butler’s description of the British print is to be believed), redubbed certain of the voices (including the director’s own), and slapped that insipid title on the film for its American release. With righteous indignation, Polanski asked that his name not be associated with the film as exhibited in the United States.
Originally released in the U.S. under the name Strange Behavior, Dead Kids is the debut screenplay by future director and Oscar-winning screenwriter Bill Condon (he Oscared for Gods and Monsters) and the directorial debut of producer Michael Laughlin (Two-Lane Blacktop), two Americans who got their offbeat horror movie made by filming it as an Australian / New Zealand / American co-production in New Zealand. The title Dead Kids makes it sound like a slasher picture or a zombie film, and while there are some elements of both of those genres echoing through the film, it’s really a mix of mad scientist thriller and revenge movie dropped into a somewhat surreal recreation of small-town Midwest America.
Michael Murphy stars as John Brady, an easy-going chief of police (or maybe county sheriff?) in Galesburg, a small Illinois town close enough to Chicago to request help from the city’s homicide detectives. He’s a widower and a single father to Pete (Dan Shor), a smart, good-looking high school kid who wants to go to city college, despite Dad’s insistence he go to a major university and see a little of the world beyond this town. Dad has good reason to send Pete away: he blames a professor at the local college for the death of his wife. The professor is long deceased yet his legacy still hovers over the school through pre-recorded lectures and professors who continue his psychiatric research and experiments in behavior modification. Pete, eager to make a little extra money, signs up as their latest test subject in a vaguely-described study being run by the doctor’s protégé (Fiona Lewis, with an air of icy dominatrix about her). The project, of course, turns out to have a sinister side, as an outbreak of violent, inexplicable murders attest.