The Dorm That Dripped Blood 1981
aka Pranks aka Death Dorm
Directed by: Stephen Carpenter and Jeffrey Obrow
Starring: Laurie Lapinski, Stephen Sachs, Daphne Zuniga
Review by Luisito Joaquín González
Many of the slasher films from the early eighties were made by filmmakers with minimal experience who were looking to land their first big break. Whenever I get the chance to speak to crew members from that period, I notice that there’s usually always a unique story about how they secured funding or what corners they cut to get the feature released. None of those that I’ve heard though startled me quite as much as what I found out about The Dorm that Dripped Blood, which is one of my favourites of the golden age.
I was sure that lurking behind the scenes here was a fat cat producer with a wad of notes and a hunger to cash in on the slasher craze. It turns out though that this was nothing more than a thesis project from three ambitious students of the University of California. After seeing John Carpenter’s seminal Halloween at the cinema, Jeffrey Obrow, Stephen Carpenter and Stacey Giachino decided that they wanted to have a crack at making something similar. With minimal funding they put together a team of up and comers, which resulted in a launch pad for a few notable careers. Christopher Young was studying music on a campus that was situated close to Obraw and Carpenter, whilst twenty-four year old make-up artist Matthew Mungle had just began pitching his junior portfolio to prospective employers. Years after they completed this film, Young would become one of the most popular composers of recent times and Mungle would win an Academy award and gain a further three nominations.
The shoot took place mainly during the December of 1980 and Obrow and his crew built their entire schedule around when the equipment that was provided by UCLA was available for use. The locations were all discovered in and around the campus and the majority of cast members were unknowns or eager friends. Their coming together resulted in a superb example of the genre’s strengths when handled with ambition
A group of youngsters stay behind over the Christmas period to help clean and disassemble a dorm that is about to be closed down. Little do they know that they are sharing the location with a brutal killer…
I came across the film Pranks (as it was known in the UK) when I was growing up in London. Alongside The Driller Killer, Night of the Demon and Madhouse it had been quickly added to the DPP list and classified as a video nasty. Although the intention of the British government had been to do the exact opposite, the tag gave the film a cult classic reputation and it was passed around on bootleg format with the added rebellious attraction of its unlawful status. A younger kid called Dean from across the street had a genuine copy that his dad had rescued from the claws of the Video Nasty campaign. In the end he sold to me for £10, which was a lot of money for an eleven year old child, but I wanted it so badly I would have paid £50.
Dorm is without a shadow of a doubt one of the grittiest of the period slashers and in my opinion, one of the most underrated. Despite not boasting the finesse of a My Bloody Valentine or Dressed to Kill, it succeeds by sacrificing an atmosphere of campy fun and replacing it with unrelenting grimness. From the first moment on screen – when a guy is brutally murdered before the credits – the audience is made aware that they are watching a horror movie and there are no real attempts to alter the mood. I have always believed that in terms of structure for a slasher, you need to open with a shock, spend no more than thirty-five minutes on plot development with maybe the odd killing to maintain the tone. Follow that with a suspenseful mid-section, whilst the body count mounts, and then leave a good twenty-five minutes for the showdown/unmasking scene with the protagonist. Obraw’s screenplay gets that pretty much spot on and despite a few hollow moments that could have perhaps been much shorter, Christopher Young’s fantastic score (one of the best of the genre) sustains the energy.
Watching the newly released director’s cut has given Matthew Mumble’s gore effects the stage that they deserve and on BlueRay, they look superb. Hearing about the minimalistic funding that he was given to achieve these results somehow makes them seem all the better and in its entirety, Dorm can rightly be acknowledged as one of the most gruesome of its kind. There’s a fairly well-constructed mystery with red-herrings popping up in the right places and even if the killer’s revelation is not expertly conveyed (the motive is non-existent) it leads to a bold final scene, which was unique at the time of filming.
Perhaps what the feature lacks the most is a group of well developed personalities that we can bond with. The players here are wafer thin and therefore we never feel particularly intrigued by their dialogue or sympathetic towards their plight. In film’s such as Iced, Evil Laugh or Friday the 13th Part II, memorable faces such as Carl, Barney and Ted added some comedic warmth to the proceedings and make us care more about the results of the oncoming horror. Here though, Laurie Lapinski gave us a one-dimensional and extremely unapproachable final girl, whilst the rest of the cast were never offered anything authentic to escape their stereotype. Soon to be superstar Daphne Zuniga gets no chance to impress on her five-minute feature debut. It has to be said though that the kill scene that sees her get gruesomely mutilated along with her parents has been written in to slasher folklore as one of the best sequences of the cycle. Whilst it could be argued that the lower amount of definition in the characters that guide us through the story give the film a more ‘complete’ feel of out and out horror, I couldn’t help but wonder how good this could have been with a tad more depth put into the protagonist and her co-stars.
Perhaps the most impressive thing of all is that despite the complete lack of experience of those involved, Dorm is one of most notorious pieces of the initial slasher phase. It is a brutal, scary, gory and atmospheric slasher that engulfs you in its storm of underlying gloom. It overcomes its obviously raw level of filmmaking technicality to be a real treat for horror audiences. I thoroughly recommend it.
Final Girl √√