In a small town in Midwestern America there is something sinister going on, as one young student is about to find out. He is in his room at his studies, when his mother calls up to say she is going out, so he takes the opportunity to have a quick cigarette. Just as he takes a puff, he is plunged into darkness: there has been a power cut so he goes downstairs to light a candle, but as he becomes entranced by the shadow shapes he makes on the wall, he is abruptly interrupted by another figure, and he has a knife...
Perhaps the reason Strange Behavior feels so off-kilter is that it wasn't filmed in the United States at all, but in New Zealand, so while the actors speak mainly in American accents, not surprising with most of them hailing from that country, the atmosphere doesn't seem quite right. Of course, another reason it is so odd could well be that it is an update of the old mad scientist tale and plonked down in this small town, with allusions to the slasher movies which were in vogue in the horror genre at the time and brief interludes for such things as a dance number put to the sound of the Lou Christie oldie "Lightning Strikes".
Our main characters are a father and son, the mother having died in mysterious circumstances which will be explained later on, and they are a police chief, Brady (Michael Murphy) and his son, Peter (Dan Shor). Pete goes to the local college, where a few of the students are showing great improvements in their work, a state of affairs that seems to be down to their volunteering to be guinea pigs at the local research institute. Pete's friend Oliver (Marc McClure) has been undergoing these tests, and the As he is receiving on his papers prove that there is some benefit to the experiments.
Of course there isn't! Well, OK, the tests do make you brainy, but there are serious side effects and if you cannot work out what they are you haven't been paying attention. Could they be perhaps something to do with the spate of killings that have occured recently? Certainly the mutilated bodies seem to have been the product of deranged minds, and the setpiece murder sequences are curiously handled in an almost matter-of-fact fashion by director Michael Laughlin, who would go on to direct an even more popular cult favourite in Strange Invaders.
Writer Bill Condon pulls off a tricky act of making it clear-ish what is going on by the end, but leaving you confused as to the reasons why. Some kind of mind control appears to be the aim, but along the way there are such weird scenes as a college lecture given by a dead professor (Arthur Dignam) courtesy of a film reel in which the man on the screen controls the actions of a chicken with wiring on its head in the lecture hall. Yet rather than closing down the interest of the audience, all this uneasy peculiarity becomes intriguing, so even if you're not entirely satisfied by the fuzzy explanations, you do have the sense of fulfilment that a decent horror movie should provide. Also worthy of note are the doctor at the institute (the great Fiona Lewis) who administers injections of who-knows-what into the eyeball, and Dey Young as Pete's perky girlfriend, who may be cute but smokes too much. Music by Tangerine Dream.