Director Michael Laughlin’s Strange Unfinished Trilogy

*contains spoilers

Producer and director Michael Laughlin (1943-) has been around since the late 1960s. He produced the highly praised Bryan Forbes (1926-2013 multiple sclerosis) directed film The Whisperers (1967) which earned Dame Edith Evans (1888-1976) an Oscar nomination. He also produced one of director Monte Hellman’s (1932-) finished products Two Lane Blacktop (1971).

Director Michael Laughlin

Raised in Illinois, this is important as it is the setting for two films in his Strange Unfinished Film Trilogy which consists of the movies Strange Behaviour aka Dead Kids (1981) and Strange Invaders (1983), plus another movie which was never made with ‘strange’ in the title.

Two Lane Blacktop (1971) trailer

Strange also is that the title of Strange Behaviour was originally Dead Kids – the title most people prefer – but this exploitation horror slasher was released around the same time as the horror of the Altanta Child Murders unfolded and were hitting the headlines and the New York distributors and exhibitors had to agree to change the name of the film or it would not be shown. So, the title of Strange Behaviour was born.

Filmed in Auckland in New Zealand for the sum of one million dollars in a matter of five weeks, Strange Behaviour successfully passes its setting off as mid-west America despite being shot in another hemisphere.

Strange Behaviour/Behavior (1981) poster

Strange Behaviour is co-written by Laughlin and Bill Condon (1955-) and Condon plays the smoking teen who gets killed at the beginning of the movie.

Condon went on to win an Oscar for writing Gods and Monsters (1998) the excellent film about the last days of Frankenstein (1931) director James Whale (1889-1957 suicide by drowning in pool). He also directed that movie as well as the popular musical drama Dreamgirls (2006).

The alternate title Dead Kids VHS cover

Since Condon directed Dreamgirls, it is probably not surprising that there is a musical number in Strange Behaviour and it’s a good one for a low budget film as the cast dresses as tv characters and dance in someone’s lounge room to singer Lou Christie’s (1943-) Lightnin’ Strikes. Meanwhile a murderer lurks in a Tor Johnson (1903-71 heart failure) mask, the actor who appeared in a few Ed Wood movies. It is one of the ‘pop will eat itself’ type references in the movie.

Writer and later director Bill Condon

Laughlin said: “I always looked upon this as a mad doctor film” about the movie’s further references. And the 1940s were full of such movies with stars like Bela Lugosi, George Zucco and John Carradine experimenting with serums or creating zombies and the like.

The references to film culture in Strange Behaviour sets this movie apart as it is one of the first to jam such things into its screenplay. It is a celebration of the genre as well as an exploitation movie. I guess this is what makes it an instant cult film, something which struck me the first time I saw it on VHS in the 1980s.

Lou Christie performs Lightnin’ Strikes live. The original single is better.

Laughlin cast the film with people he knew including Michael Murphy (1938-), Louise Fletcher (1934-), Charles Lane (1905-2007 natural causes), Scott Brady (1924-85 pulmonary fibrosis) and Fiona Lewis (1946-). It’s a great cast alongside younger actors Dan Shor (1956-), Dey Young (1955-) and Marc McClure (1957-).

Although the film was shot in New Zealand, it had a mainly Australian crew after producer Anthony I. Ginnane (no info) left Aussie shores to make four films in NZ after trouble with the unions in Australia. It apparently had something to do with using large overseas casts. It was fortunate, as it led to this film being forged.

The murderer in the Tor Johnson mask in Strange Behaviour

As for the story, there are murders being committed in a small town and the local lawman investigates while his son enrols to have experiments performed on him at the local research unit at the university… Of course, these experiments lead to such memorable moments as a syringe being plunged into his eye socket, the poor boy peeing blood and a great reveal of a mad doctor named Dr. Le Sange which is French for doctor of blood.

This mad doctor is played by great Aussie actor Arthur Dignam (1939-2020 heart attack) who died recently while going out for his daily constitutional. He is also in another cult favourite of mine which I have discussed a couple of times entitled The Dreaming.

Another well staged scene in Strange Behaviour aka Dead Kids

Apparently, Klaus Kinski was set to play the role but dropped out a few weeks before filming.

“It’s amazing how many people agreed to come and do this film,” said Laughlin, whose friend Louis Horvath’s (no info) cinematography transcends his work with Al Adamson (1929-95 murdered) on Blazing Stewardesses (1975) and Black Samurai (1976). He would work with the director again on his second ‘strange’ movie.

Prelude to the famous or notorious syringe scene in Strange Behaviour

It’s certainly great to look at and Laughlin said of his own work when setting up a shot: “I never, never go back to the same shot, of course, everyone once in a while does. I try to advance the editing as if it were architecture and you’re travelling through a building – to constantly change the perspective.”

Laughlin was told he had a talent for directing, although it was probably the thought of its hard work which put him off so long as he was a child “brought up in country clubs and private schools”. He couldn’t face the “backbreaking 24-hour a day work”.

The Strange Behaviour aka Dead Kids (1981) trailer

“I had a lot of experience and a lot of special things I felt I could bring to directing two or three films and this would be a wonderful thing to do so it was all thanks to Bill (Condon) the Jesuit for showing me the way”.

German VHS cover

There is no doubt that Laughlin can direct, but it is Condon’s excellent screenplay which makes the most of the budget. Laughlin said the pair wrote together in the same room and that “when you’re writing about an environment that you know (the mid-west)… Bill knew in film terms that I could ground it in reality”. Somehow the film has a life or universe of its own as a result of this pair working together.

The surprise the pair got upon the film’s release was the notable serious reviews it received from publications such as Time and Newsweek. Even iconic film critic Pauline Kael (1919-2001 Parkinson’s disease) is said to have liked the film but she never wrote about it although was known to have spoken about it.

The work’s all there in Strange Behaviour aka Dead Kids and Laughlin said: “it wasn’t a summer holiday, it was long hours and a lot of work”.

Famed film critic Pauline Kael liked Dead Kids

The critical success of this film led to the second in the unfinished trilogy being filmed entitled Strange Invaders. Laughlin wanted to do a film on a different topic with ‘strange’ in the title and Strange Invaders is a sci-fi movie rather than exploitation horror.

Filmed in 32 days on a budget of five million dollars, Laughlin was again going to use Michael Murphy but instead settled for Paul Le Mat (1945-) who had recently appeared in the critically successful Melvin and Howard (1980) but hadn’t had a hit since.

Strange Invaders (1983) DVD cover

Condon was behind the screenplay again as well as inventing the story. Apparently, the script was going to be about Cat People but it was then decided to make it about aliens. This is probably because of Universal’s production of Cat People (1982) and the box office indifference to it around the same time.

The 1978 version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers trailer

Laughlin said that in the 1950s and 60s there had been a lot of serious sci-fi alien movies but by the time of Strange Invaders, which uses the story of a small-town infestation by aliens and alien kidnappings, there was “a new sort of winsome and charming and light-hearted point of view… It had a wink to the audience as well.” It should be noted that Strange Invaders was made around the same time as E.T The Extra Terrestrial (1982), which I think is what the director meant.

An unmasked bug-eyed monster in Strange Invaders

Yes, Strange Invaders is a homage to the 1950s sci-fi movies. We have Le Mat’s character teaching about insects and as we know they can grow to gigantic proportions in Them (1954) and The Deadly Mantis (1957). They can also be bug-eyed monsters, but it is the body snatching element which is integral to the movie and the 50s period as it took American paranoia to its max during the Cold War way back when… The movies used sci-fi and this element to take the public’s mind off the threat of nuclear war, even if it heightened the audience’s anxiety in other ways.

A giant ant in the 1950s sci-fi classic Them!

Dan Shor and Dey Young, who were the leads in Strange Behaviour, briefly appear as a young couple singing along to Bobby Vinton’s (1933-97 emphysema) My Special Angel at the beginning of the movie when the infestation in the small town begins back in the 1950s.

It’s then present day when Le Mat goes to the town to track down his ex-wife but his pet dog is taken and his car is blown up by the unfriendly townspeople who are all apparently aliens. These people eventually go to New York and kidnap Le Mat’s daughter for possibly nefarious purposes… Did I mention his wife was also an alien?

Nancy Allen mucks around on the Robocop set. She muckrakes in Strange Behaviour

Le Mat should have known something was wrong at the local town diner when the waitress over fills his coffee cup without an apology… Also starring in the film is Nancy Allen (1950-) as a National Enquirer type reporter who Le Mat goes to when he sees a picture of an alien on the cover of her magazine which looks remarkably like the one he saw in the mid-west town.

Strange Invaders, like its predecessor, should be seen in widescreen for its full effect. Laughlin admits he is a great user of long shots with a few edits and even fewer close-ups in the tradition of great western director John Ford (1894-1973).

Pauline Kael wasn’t impressed by actor Paul Le Mat or Strange Invaders

“Aliens are passe,” says Nancy Allen, who can’t identify the bug-eyed monster pic taken from the files for her front-page story. In fact, one of the weaknesses of this film is that there is no editorial office for this magazine and while Allen maybe a stringer for the publication, there only seems to be two people working for it!

Still, it’s a good movie with small touches such as Allen watching The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), while the quick romance between Le Mat and Allen is also a bit unbelievable… yet the romance element is often shoe-horned into so many a sci-fi film.

The real Hangar 18 may contain nothing

What is believable is the dialogue of Louise Fletcher as a government official who picks up the couple who have been harassed in New York by the aliens: “You’ve intruded on a very delicate situation… We have an agreement with them… we’ve known about them for a long time… they provide us with certain advantages and we provide them with a place to live…”

A TV spot for the movie about Hangar 18 (1980)

Does Strange Invaders tell us the truth about Hanger 18 at the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio with its UFO? There is a 1980 film of that title. Does it also hint at what is in Area 51, that highly classified air force base in Nevada? Or are they just another National Enquirer/Informer story? If so, do they cover a pact which already exists here on Earth between government departments and aliens? And what about Roswell?

Kenneth Tobey at the rear with Razzie nominee Diana Scarwid

Anyway, it’s fun to consider a conspiracy theory or two but to take it seriously is another thing… Or Thing from Another World! To use a weak pun on the possibility of ever-present aliens!! Not to mention that Kenneth Tobey (1917-2002 natural causes) who was in the 1951 version of The Thing from Another World makes an appearance as an alien in Strange Invaders.

Nancy Allen suggested when the film was completed to Bill Condon to take a copy to the town where critic Pauline Kael lived and show her it, especially since she had liked Strange Behaviour so much.

Kenneth Tobey appeared in The Thing from Another World (1951). Here’s the trailer.

It was set up and Condon sat next to Kael at the screening… She was immediately cold on the movie, especially the casting of Le Mat as a Columbia University professor. Condon said it was one of the most excruciating experiences of his life to sit there and despite a dinner date afterwards, the pair left as soon as possible.

Other cast members in the movie include Fiona Lewis – who was so excellent as an evil scientist in the first ‘strange’ movie – as an alien Avon lady… There is also a Lost in Space connection from the original tv show with appearances by June Lockhart (1925-) and Mark Goddard (1936-). There are also a couple of classic thespians in the form of Wallace Shawn (1943-) and Michael Lerner (1941-).

Effective special effects in the relatively low budget Strange Invaders. Here Michael Lerner.

When we come to Lerner’s story of his family being kidnapped by aliens, there is the paranoid speech which ends: “… They started following me. I’d come home at night and it felt like people had been in my house… It was like they were playing a game with me.”

Poor Michael Lerner surrendered to those gaslighting aliens and checked himself into the local sanatorium for good.

Le Mat and Allen on the run North by Northwest style in Strange Behaviour

While Laughlin describes Strange Invaders as North by Northwest (1959) inspired, he admits that “you’re never going to do much better than Alfred Hitchcock”. Also, note that his step-daughter appears in the movie as the child in peril.

In fact, it is she who utters the line at the end of the movie once the big reveal of the special effects and a mother ship spiriting away the aliens back home with her mother – who could apparently cross-breed – when she says: “She’ll be back”. It is a line reminiscent of the classic It Came from Outer Space (1953) when Richard Carlson also utters to his fiancée about recently departed aliens: “They’ll be back”.

Richard Carlson (centre) utters “They’ll be back” in It Came from Outer Space (1953)

Laughlin followed Strange Invaders with a film that wasn’t the third in the unfinished trilogy – Mesmerized (1986). It was shot in New Zealand and was a period piece which starred Jodie Foster (1962-) and John Lithgow (1945-). Dan Shor also appears.

“It was an uncomfortable experience at the bitter end because the producer sold the video rights in the U.S. which made it impossible to sell the theatrical rights effectively,” said Laughlin about what he described as “a very poetic period evocation of a young woman’s story”.

Mesmerized (1986) put Laughlin off directing

Anyway, as a result, Mesmerized failed financially and critically and it is because of this that the third film in the ‘strange’ trilogy was never made. Laughlin was probably disillusioned too much by this point.

Laughlin, apparently without Condon, had written a third screenplay entitled The Adventures of Philip Strange which was set during World War Two…. Say no more.

The director counts himself lucky that his first two movies were such a success critically and said: “If you have good reviews for a small first film or a small horror film that stands as a record of your work… it is very, very important and helpful…”

Strange Invaders (1983) trailer

He also said the greatest experience he had with all his film work was when he showed Strange Behaviour to a totally black audience in New York one weekend.

“It was an amazing experience… (they) reacted to almost everything… the people were totally, totally into it.”

And that is not a surprise as Dead Kids, as I prefer as the title, is an almost strange experience and evocation of time and place that probably shouldn’t have worked… The Tangerine Dream soundtrack also helps! But, boy, it captures something and certainly does succeed! Check it out again if you haven’t already.

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