BR: Dorm That Dripped Blood, The / Pranks / Death Dorm (1982)

May 9, 2011 | By

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Film: Very Good/ DVD Transfer: Excellent / DVD Extras: Excellent

Label: Synapse Films / Region: All / Released: April 26, 2011

Genre: Horror / Slasher / Video Nastie

Synopsis: A mischievous prankster upsets the plans of happy-go-lucky coeds as they sort through the contents of a dorm before a private sale.

Special Features:

Disc 1: Audio commentary with directors Jeffrey Obrow and Stephen Carpenter / Interview featurette with composer Christopher Young: “My First Score” (8:09) / Interview featurette with special make effects creator Matthew Mungle: “My First Slasher” (9:29) / Isolated mono music score / 2 Theatrical trailers / Reversible sleeve art

Disc 2: DVD featuring same content as Blu-ray.

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Review:

Like fellow indie horror director Sam Raimi, co-directors Jeffrey Obrow and Stephen Carpenter raised financing for their feature film debut by first creating a custom trailer / promo featurette, but Obrow and Carpenter made their eventual film while seniors in school at UCLA.

The pair were inspired the by financial success of John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978), which by 1980 had become the top-grossing independent film of all-time, and spawned a wave of slasher entries from able and less inventive filmmakers. Like many contemporaries, they figured ‘Why can’t we make something simple using school equipment?’

The directors also realized that during the Christmas holidays, one of the main residences was virtually abandoned, save for a few lonely students unable to find a family and seasonal turkey dinner. With a script banged out by Obrow, Carpenter (no relation to John) and Stacey Giachino and financing set, Death Dorm as it was called, was filmed on campus, using residences, kitchens, mechanical rooms and basements. The directors also figured why not go farther with the gore, since the slasher template had become significantly redder and chunkier with films such as Driller Killer (1979).

The final film was ultimately sold to an indie distributor and enjoyed a run through the drive-in circuit, but similar to Raimi’s Evil Dead, Obrow and Carpenter’s film became one of the original video nasties when the U.K. distributor was slapped with a lawsuit, and Pranks – the film’s second name – had to be trimmed for theatrical and home video releases.

That branding ultimately gave The Dorm That Dripped Blood – it’s third and final title – the kind of notoriety most filmmakers (if not producers) dream of, but for decades Dorm was available primarily in circumcised VHS releases, sourced from terrible transfers that lacked detail and balanced colours.

For fans of vintage slasher films and newcomers to Dorm, the question is whether the film lives up to its reputation as a genuinely nasty little film. Not quite, but that’s not a bad thing, since a film filled with rampant, graphic sadism would arguably be a bit disappointing if it resembled current disposable direct-to-DVD product.

Dorm is completely hand-crafted: from the grainy 16mm cinematography, dim lighting, lack of studio sets, rudimentary production design, and novice actors, it radiates the crudeness of its student filmmakers whose prior experience (er, assignments) were shorts films.

In their commentary track, Obrow and Carpenter admit they were challenged by the demands of making a feature-length work on a shoestring budget, which is why there are many, many scenes where characters blurt random excuses to leave rooms and go do things, travelling from point A to point B, then C, and so on.

The film opens with an effective shock-killing followed by the quick demise of actress Daphne Zuniga (making her acting debut) and her character’s parents, but the film’s midsection is padded with much wandering, and the decision to shoot primarily at night limited co-director / co-writer / cinematographer Carpenter to capture more details of the hulking Brutalist dorm that served as the slaughtering ground of pretty and buffed coeds.

Some red herrings work, while others lack plausibility, but the directors eventually found their groove in the finale, shaping a decent collision between the unmasked killer, the heroine, and the police. The bunker-like tunnels of UCLA’s underbelly are perfect for a lengthy stalking sequence, and the utility rooms are ideal for hiding boiled heroines, chopped up heroes, and a dead family.

Whether the ending was hastily doodled during ongoing rewrites or was part of the triumvirate’s hand-drawn conclusion, it’s still pretty ballsy for not following the conventional shocks and clichés that permeated most slasher films. For all the filler scenes of curious coeds exploring dark hallways and finding lame excuses to leave their protective rooms, the ending in part makes Dorm a minor genre classic. There’s also non-actor Woody Roll, who plays a suspicious ‘Boo Radley’ loner sporting orange, curly Bozo hair, and popping up like a wind-up box toy now and then.

For film score fans, there’s the lure of experiencing Chris (Christopher) Young’s first feature film score, and it’s very much the product of an eager, hard-working composer slowly learning the ropes… and evoking his favourite composers a bit too closely, much in the way James Horner wafted through various Jerry Goldsmith themes, motifs, and phrases in his own nascent score, Humanoids from the Deep (1980).

Young’s main theme is an overt homage to Bernard Herrmann’s Sisters (1973), whereas the tense danger motif is drawn from a snippet of Jerry Goldsmith’s Boys from Brazil (1978). A rooftop cue underscoring the killers daytime stalking is a rework of Goldsmith’s ‘search’ music in Planet of the Apes (1968), but in between those homages are the rough efforts of Young developing the sonic techniques which made Hellraiser (1987), The Grudge (2004), and The Fly II (1989) some of the finest horror score writing around.

Young appears in a short interview which he prefaces with having few recollections of the score’s contents beyond the obvious homages, and allowing its release on CD only if he didn’t have to hear it – which is a fair bargain, because in 1981 he was still trying to find his own voice, and how he could apply the techniques of modernism and classical writing to create terrifying music.

Nevertheless, Young’s music does give the film’s meandering midsection badly needed momentum, and infers the kind of danger Carpenter wasn’t fully able to detail in his cinematography. The mono sound mix is adequate, but as the snippets of stereo score extracts used in the Blu-ray’s featurettes and interviews attest, a lot of fine compositional minutia were clipped in the final film mix. Perhaps that’s why the original soundtrack LP sold well – impulse buyers, collectors and film fans were pleasantly surprised by Young’s commitment to giving his first slasher score his all. The BR does contain an isolate mono music track, so connoisseurs can see how well Young’s music works on its own.

A second interview featurette covers Matthew Mungle’s grisly make-up effects, which include hand trauma, face mashing by nail-studded baseball bat, cranial penetration by industrial tool, the inference of Daphne Zuniga’s head-getting mashing by the family sedan, various cuts and slashes from a machete, and fresh coed soup.

Mungle, who won an Oscar for co-designing the make-up effects for Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula (1993), also recalls the effects that were trimmed for the British release, and some that were trimmed or unused in the final edit. The most glaring omission is a boiled head, seen in various publicity stills, and featured prominently among the LP liner notes. Presumably there was a shot of the actresses’ head bobbing up under the pot lid which was designed and filmed, but never used perhaps due to rewrites and reshoots (such as the boob-flashing in the apartment of would-be hero Bobby Lee Tremble).

Obrow and Carpenter’s commentary track is one of the best in years for a vintage horror film, and makes up for Dorm not quite delivering all of the advertised and inferred shocks. The two men were and remain best friends, and the energetic pair often finish each other’s sentences, adding lots of production trivia, some background info on the cast (many who never continued with film acting. Surprise), the score, and the film’s eventual shaping into a finished commercial product.

Pity some of the ephemera Obrow describes – vintage p.r. radio interviews, the original film script, the promo version to entice the money men – weren’t unearthed in time for this release, but Synapse’s production is first-rate.

The film transfer was made from the lone surviving 35mm answer print of the uncut version, and while it’s a 16mm blow-up, Dorm looks pretty good. A real problem with vintage slashers is finding uncut versions from high quality sources, since the financing of these films as well as their disposable nature made them vulnerable to neglect. Dorm at least has the honor of being a true video nasty, and that may have kept the film in high regards by collectors and genre fans.

As with other Synapse releases, it’s a dual BR and DVD combo edition, with each disc sporting the same extras. The sleeve art is reversible, so those unhappy with the Dorm ad featuring a faux turn-of-the-century dormitory can switch to the Pranks campaign, which made excellent use of the non-regulation MLB bat.

Synapse seems to have a history of currying relationships with filmmakers, so hopefully this will be followed by Obrow and Carpenter’s 1984 second film, The Power (sporting a superior Young score), and the pair’s first big budget film, The Kindred (1987), starring Rod Steiger and a horrid toupee. (Even better would be Torment, the 1986 shocker co-directed by Obrow and Carpenter’s colleague Samson Aslanian. The film, unseen and unavailable for years sports a gnashing, angry Chris Young score.)

Keep ’em coming!

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© 2011 Mark R. Hasan

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Related external links (MAIN SITE):

CD:  Boys from Brazil, The (1978)

DVD / Film: Driller Killer (1979) — Evil Dead, The (1981) — Halloween (1978) — Hellraiser (1987) —  Within the Woods (1978)

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External References:

IMDB Soundtrack AlbumComposer Filmography

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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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