The Dorm That Dripped Blood Review
The old DPP list of outlawed films, the much cherished (yet often massively disappointing) assemblage of low-budget atrocity that swarmed under the ever-tantalising and taboo-stretching banner of the “Video Nasties” once carried this little number from high-school experimentalists Jeffrey Obrow and Stephen Carpenter. Hailing from 1981, and coming at the peak of the stalk 'n' slash genre, The Dorm That Dripped Blood courted controversy in the UK when it debuted on home video under the lousy, yet rather memorable moniker of “Pranks”. Already cut, the film still received short-thrift from the tabloid-whipped-up Witch Hunters, who denounced it as filth on a par with Wes Craven's The Last House On The Left and Umberto Lenzi's Cannibal Ferox. Yet, as you can no doubt guess, Obrow and Carpenter's teenage slasher is so far down the league table when it comes to disturbing themes and imagery, or even gross-out splatter that its resurrection here on Synapse's US region-free Blu-ray will hardly meet with a gore-hound fanfare!
With the college dormitory standing condemned on the eve of the Christmas vacation, a handful of student volunteers stay behind to help close the place down. But someone is determined to make their stay in the dark and lonely halls a nightmare of psychotic torment, and as the party of friends are gradually whittled down, one by one, it seems that the killer is always one step ahead of them. Only Joanne Murray (Laurie Lapinski) has the tenacity to face off against the lunatic and, in the time-honoured tradition of Haddonfield's Laurie Strode, attempt to turn the tables.
Although we have an early entrance (and exit) from Family Ties' Daphne Zuniga, The Dorm is filled with unknowns, wannabes, don't-wannabes-but-it's-something-to-do, no-hopers and swiftly forgottens. But this is sort of film where such things work in its favour. If you don't know or even recognise anybody in the line-up, then you certainly can't vouch for whether or not they might make it out alive come the final credits. Dorm is strictly running in accordance with the slasher formula, though. Jocks think that they're smart but get eviscerated in the blink of an eye. The cuter girls wander off into the dark and get clubbed, run-over or boiled. And, after a while, we have one lone lady, not as sexy as her dead chums, but possessed of far more savvy, who must outwit the mystery killer for the final reel and ultimately go toe-to-toe with them if they are to survive the ordeal. It is worth remembering that even if The Dorm came a full four years after John Carpenter's classic Halloween, it was still one of the earlier entries in what would become an overcrowded arena of nubile carnage.
There are plenty of effective scenes that make the most of the isolated and creepy setting. Naturally, this is a movie in which people frequently wander off into dark rooms, or down scary corridors on their own … and this is fine, given the genre. But the boiler-rooms, the basements and the shadow-drenched stairwells have a great frisson of the genuinely unnerving because they are real. Machine-rooms and pipes and ductworks not only recall the hunting-ground of the Nostromo in Alien, but also the zombie-occupied generator hall in Dawn Of The Dead. There is a huge difference in films such as The Prowler and Prom Night, in which the locations are so mundane and over-used, and in this, in which rooms are lit to be claustrophobic in order to juxtapose with the bigger scenes of characters moving a series of real locations, ironically enhancing the feeling of claustrophobia all the more. The dormitory is a big place, but with quite superb photography from Carpenter and surprisingly assured direction from both Obrow and Carpenter, it comes to feel like a sprung trap. A couple of daylight exterior scenes only add to the shut-in feeling of violence that the structure seems to evoke, especially as they layer-in some menace and threat amidst the dusty sunshine.
The acting, however, is appalling. This is very much the sort of amateur dramatics that you would expect from a bunch of untrained college kids. Line delivery is lax and miscued and the group scenes resolutely fall flat with lulls and poor timings. There are occasions when this can be excruciating, I'm afraid, and this flies in the face of some really creepy work from a couple of the boys as the film wanders into “who's really who” territory. The screenplay, which you've probably already guessed stems from the directing duo, is typically opportunist and once we have the protagonists pitched into the warren of tunnels and corridors it is merely an exercise in Ten Little Indians – which is fine.
There is an attempt to shock with the big reveal, but this really didn't surprise anybody at the time because there had already been a slew of such red-herring-laden, murderer-misdirected thrillers doing the rounds. The film gets kudos for trying, however, and you have to hand it to a scenario that actually makes you afraid of someone sporting frizzy Art Garfunkel hair. The influence of Halloween is unmistakable, as you would expect, but it is strange to see that Assault On Precinct 13 also gets something of a nod, with some rather lame cops cruising around the old and supposedly deserted dormitory throughout the night rather like the inept and unobservant patrolmen in John Carpenter's even earlier classic.
Both the filmmakers and the distribution label fall over themselves to inform us that this version of the movie is the full uncut print, something that has not been seen in over thirty years and, to some, may perhaps have been considered as a “lost gem”. Well, as Pranks, the UK saw a censored version, but the US didn't actually fare a whole lot better, themselves. When the film was first released, under the title Death Dorm – the title that fronts this original cut of the film, incidentally – it was shorn of some of its blood-letting. The MPAA, at this time, were probably a lot more random with their cuts than Thatcher's Inquisitional BBFC. In the UK, you pretty much knew the sort of material that would wind up on the banned list, or would, at least, court some controversy with the moral guardians. In America, it was a different story. The pages of Fangoria magazine were regularly filled with carnage culled from the cutting-room floor, all those delicious depravities that supposedly respectable people like you and I weren't allowed to see. Yet the irony was that for every sanitised R-rated abomination that loss-recouping filmmakers were forced to sneak out, there was something like The Deer Hunter happily wallowing in the sort of stuff that they weren't permitted to show. And then there were those who threw caution to the wind and put their films out without a rating, to the apparent financial and critical ignominy that seemingly lay in wait for them. Whilst this was a mark of rabid collectibility to many of us fans, it was still nothing more than a commercial kiss of death. So that dreaded compromise of the studio's own “precut” film was reached all too often, some makers already excising the bloodier bits in fear that the MPAA would come down harder and remove even more. The Friday The 13th series became synonymous with this double-standard. The films were made with all their gore intact, and then submitted time and time again to the MPAA, and pruned a little more each time until the very element that people wanted to see was no longer there.
In truth, the UK merely dumped Pranks in with the rest of a random selection of slasher-pics dragged fairly indiscriminately off video-library shelves in the wake of The Evil Dead and Zombie Flesheaters making tabloid waves. The popularity and resulting court-case regarding the uncut version of Tony Maylem's finger-pruning summer-camp massacre, The Burning, meant that even relatively safe thrillers were hauled in for scrutiny, and this film was simply one of those unlucky victims. Guilty by association far more than it was guilty of any actual obscenity.
So, what delights are on offer with this uncensored version?
Well, my fellow gore-hounds … if I were you I wouldn't get all that excited. We had the awesome full version of George Mihalka's original My Bloody Valentine a while ago (see separate BD review), which really amped-up the good stuff, but this film was never going to be in the same splattery league. The infamous spiked baseball-batting goes on for longer than we have seen it before, with a few extra skull-mashes thrown in for good measure. A shot of a dismembered corpse gets a frame or two more. For some reason, the MPAA took a grave dislike to such bloody “reveal” shots as this – to wit numerous Friday 13th entries and sundry other slashers in which earlier victims played jack-in-the-box with the surviving heroines – although they were more often than not quite happy to let audiences see these victims just as they were being mutilated … which doesn't make a whole of sense. The makers of the film seem ecstatic that this tasty shot is now reinstated but, really, Hammer were showing us far more outrageous imagery than this back in the sixties. There is a nasty boiling alive of one unfortunate, but this is more implied than shown … and Dario Argento utterly outclassed it with that scorched and scalded face in Deep Red, seven years before. Even Halloween II made something similar far more graphic and wince-inducing just the year before Dorm came out. One of the best and most explicit gore-gags that Matthew Mungle created still doesn't appear even in this uncut edition! But we really can't blame the censors or the distributors for this. As Mungle explains in his little interview in the Special Features, the effect of one male victim getting hacked to pieces didn't come off anywhere near as well as it was supposed to and, although no-one actually says why it wasn't just re-done, it never made the final cut, and what was supposed to have been the most horrible of demises is now the most boring.
But, of course, the major killing that made this film so notorious on both sides of the Pond was the drill-in-the-back-of-the-head. You will be pleased to know that this sequence is now fully intact and revealed to us in all its gory glory for the first time since Obrow and Carpenter initially unveiled their debut for the MPAA and their distributors. Undoubtedly the bloody highlight of the show, this is prime-time low-budget excess. The blood showers from the gaping wound as the spinning drill-bit whirls deeper in the gouged cranium so gleefully that we can ignore the fact that the victim is screaming and carrying-on for much longer than he possibly could do under the circumstances. Does it look any good? No, not really … the head comes apart like the dummy-prosthetic noggin we all know that it is, and the dislodged chunks of skull look like brittle plastic. But this is the grisly sort of fun that we craved back then, and there is no denying the purely nostalgic value of seeing such insane creativity. This is how George Romero, Tobe Hooper, John Carpenter, David Cronenberg, Sam Raimi, Wes Craven, Brian Yuzna and Peter Jackson all cut their cinematic teeth. They may all have gone on to bigger and better things, whilst Obrow and Carpenter (Stephen Carpenter, that is) bumbled onto The Power and the creature-feature The Kindred and then fell completely off the map, and all had shown considerably more talent right across the board, but it was the sheer cathartic joy of committing the unthinkable to celluloid that initially spurred them on.
Mungle, himself, would go on to become one of Hollywood's busiest, yet most unsung special makeup artists, working on productions as disparate as Edward Scissorhands and Bram Stoker's Dracula, and then Master And Commander and Inception.
Apparently there are additional plot and character scenes in here too, but it has been a very long time since I have seen this film (I used to triple-bill it with The Slayer and Supersition), so I can't be certain how well they alter things in this Directors' Cut.
Another thing that goes in the film's favour – and certainly an element that Synapse are keen to celebrate with his own little interview featurette – is the score from the great Christopher Young. Although derivative and hardly memorable (although there is a danger that his repetitive and over-used Herrman-esque violin-shriek will linger in the mind for some time afterwards), this is still solid stuff from a young composer who would go on to create some of the most unsettling, atmospheric and profound horror scores in the years that followed – such as those for Hellraiser and Hellbound, Invaders From Mars, Species, Urban Legend and, one of my all-time favourite soundtracks, Sam Raimi's Drag Me To Hell. There are many touches that remind of Joseph LoDuca's insane arrangements for The Evil Dead, lots of weird piano jangles, unusual percussion and cymbal sizzles, but Young truly grasped how to sustain a sense of dread and foreboding, as well as how to inject powerful musical stingers into the mix. For sure, the endless scenes of Joanne creeping about the passageways and store-rooms in the bowels of the dormitory would be tedious and yawn-inducing were it not for Young's skin-crawling motifs.
The Dorm That Dripped Blood ultimately makes a welcome return in this uncut high-definition release, but I have to temper such jaded pleasure that it brings to some with the simple fact that it really isn't very good even in a genre that was regularly amateurish and lacklustre. At exactly the same time as Obrow and Carpenter were getting their hands mucky with their own inauspicious celebration of all things stalk 'n' slashery, far more impressive screen-killers were plying their trade with even grislier aplomb. Much abused and unfairly derided, Halloween II, a more mainstream chiller than Dorm, was actually even gorier. The Evil Dead was no more expensive and fraught with a lifetime's worth of logistical problems, but was infinitely superior in terms of imagination, direction and sheer panache. Maniac took the exploitation angle a whole lot further than possibly anyone else was prepared to go at the time, making Dorm seem positively cosy by comparison. And Friday The 13th was the perfect mix of sexed-up students and graphic mayhem. Yet, out of the deluge of hack-em-ups that flung offal across Drive-In and theatre screens during this crazy period, Dorm found for itself a neat little nugget of notoriety. Actually having a lot more in common with Tobe Hooper's fun yet virtually bloodless adaptation of the Dean Koontz novel, The Funhouse, Dorm creates some genuine suspense, a fine shock or two along the way, and really utilises its location well. As the start of an illustrious career in the genre this would have been far more memorable, but the creative duo behind it never really found the verve that their inspirational peers had in spades. Their debut remains a student-film, through and through, and although there is surely nothing wrong with this, it lacks either the polish or the grit that could have marked its makers out as a force to be reckoned with within such a highly-charged genre.
Whilst we all await The Burning and Just Before Dawn (or The Slayer and Superstition, for that matter!) this grubby little “body-boiler” from 1981 serves to remind us just how many genre offerings there were back then. It is certainly no classic, but The Dorm That Dripped Blood is going to make some buffs and aficionados very happy with its return from gore's gulag.