Thursday, October 1, 2015

Shocktober Review: The Dorm That Dripped Blood

 The Dorm That Dripped Blood (aka Death Dorm aka Pranks) came out relatively early in the "slasher" craze (1982), which is why it's often lost in the shuffle. While rough around the edges, first time writer / directors Stephen Carpenter and Jeffrey Obrow do include a few story elements that, even for the time, are novel enough to recommend the film. It's not an excessively violent film, so gorehounds might be frustrated at the amount of time between slashing, but many of the kills are vicious, which makes up for the relatively low body count. Its surprisingly bleak denouement has been repeated, to better effect, in the ensuing years, but it does stand out among its contemporaries for going in a different direction.

 On the eve of winter break, students are throwing a party at Dayton Hall, a dormitory designated for conversion into an apartment complex. Once everybody leaves, it's up to a small group of volunteers to inventory, move, and clean up Dayton: Joanne (Laurie Lapinsky), Craig (Stephen Sachs), Patti (Pamela Holland), and Brian (David Snow). Debbie (Daphne Zuniga) was supposed to help out, but her parents are picking her up early. The foursome is staying in Dayton while they clear the desks and furniture out, to be sold to wholesaler Bobby Lee (Dennis Ely). Unfortunately for them, there's also a mad killer somewhere in the building, who we see hacking up some poor guy's hand at the beginning of the film. Could it be the janitor, Bill (Jake Jones)? Could it be major sleazeball Bobby Lee, who tells Joanne he likes to drive by the dorm at night? Maybe it's John Hemmit (Woody Roll), the wiry haired weirdo that digs through garbage and stares at them through windows at night. What's he even doing on campus?

 The killer takes advantage of the vast space in Dayton Hall, which is several stories, and the small group's inability to search all of campus at any one point. Debbie (SPOILER) gets knocked off when she finds her parents dead in their car, but since she's leaving, who's going to know anyway? What is the killer after, and who will survive until the end? None of this is really reinventing the wheel for a slasher movie, but Carpenter and Obrow get a lot of mileage out of the seemingly abandoned college campus. The students are basically on their own, and because they've volunteered to handle the busy work of cleaning Dayton Hall out, other than Bill, there's nothing resembling an authority figure to be found. Police aren't a factor until late in the film, in part because the killer is careful who to pick off so that their absence won't be missed. They're also pretty sure that it's just Hemmit, who doesn't speak to anyone and might just be playing pranks.

 The Dorm That Dripped Blood specializes in misdirection, although not always to its benefit. There's a lot of time devoted to setting up one story thread and then heading in another direction: at the party in the beginning of the film, we learn that Joanne is hesitant to take her relationship with Tim (Robert Frederick) to the next level. She sidesteps his offer to move in, and has clearly prioritized Dayton Hall over going skiing with Tim. It's not long after this that we meet Brian, who she spends most of the time hanging out with. Is there romantic entanglement? Well, not actually, because it turns out that Patti has a crush on Brian, and Joanne knows it. Where does that leave Craig? Not really clear, but he's kind of the clown of the group, so I can understand why Patti's not that interested. He is the kind of guy who puts a plastic bug on their eggs while Joanne is cooking.

 At the risk of going full on SPOILERS, I think it's fairly obvious to most seasoned horror fans that John Hemmit is a red herring, although the degree to which Carpenter and Obrow push him as the killer goes well beyond suspension of disbelief. It's fine to have him in the same room with Brian's body and for Joanne to assume he killed him, but to reduce Hemmit to being unable to even finish a sentence so late in the film is pushing a bit too far. Even though it adds up who the real killer is if you think about it, it's clear who it isn't, and they just keep trying to sell it. Similarly, Bobby Lee isn't just a red herring, he's almost a superfluous character: he makes an inexplicable decision to leave his girlfriend in bed at 2 in the morning to drive to Dayton Hall, for what turns out to be a plot convenience that makes the end of the film possible. He's the perfect scapegoat for the killer, who didn't even know he was coming, but who knows the police are on their way.

I will give The Dorm That Dripped Blood a lot of credit for the way the film ends (SPOILERS, again): while Final Girl theory was still in its evidence gathering stages in 1982, Carpenter and Obrow head in a completely different, more nihilistic direction with their film. It's in keeping with the brutal ways people die in the film - a drill to the head, spiked baseball bats and machetes to body parts, a garrote to the throat, running over people, or boiling them alive - but the brazen way the killer fakes being a victim in order to finish the job is particularly cruel. Joanne does her best to stay alive, so to be knocked out and stuffed into an operating furnace is especially dark. Worse still, the film closes with the still oblivious police commenting on the smell coming out of the furnace. Ouch.

 The pacing is, at times, a little lopsided, and the low budget creeps through a few times during The Dorm That Dripped Blood, but overall the Cap'n would put it in the higher end of mid-tier slasher films. It doesn't quite have the atmosphere of a Halloween, or as many inventive kills of something like The Prowler. Its twist isn't as good as Friday the 13th, but the ending is more bleak and downbeat, and it's not as much of a slog as Splatter University or Final Exam. You might even care about the uncharacteristically non-sexualized protagonists; I certainly felt bad when they started dying. It's weird seeing Spaceballs' Daphne Zuniga in her first role, and even though it's clear she won't last long, how she goes is pretty rough. The Dorm That Dripped Blood won't vault itself into your favorite slasher movies, but if you're in the mood to dig deeper into the subgenre, this is a good flick to start with, and a great kick-off to Shocktober.

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