From among the Video Nasties

I couldn't let a Summer of Blood go by without a single, solitary slasher movie, now could I? Though the Video Nasties list offers fewer of them than you might expect, given that it was the incredible popularity of the slasher film that led, at least partially, to the creation of that hitlist in the early 1980s. Of the scant handful available, I chose one not quite at random - partially influenced by its reputation for typifying first-generation slasher tropes, mostly for its title, which in America was The Dorm That Dripped Blood. That probably remains the title by which it remains best known - and for good damn reason, because it kicks ass in a way that no movie crummy enough to earn that title could possible achieve. But it was rather known as Pranks in the United Kingdom (and thus on the Nasties list), and has been codified as Pranks on U.S. DVD. Which is a completely shitty and lame title for a horror movie, and therefore an infinitely fitter match to a completely shitty and lame slasher flick.

Though it is, on balance, lame far more often than it is shitty. Truth be told, The Dorm That Dripped Blood commits few truly egregious aesthetic sins - this ain't Friday the 13th: A New Beginning. It's not even Friday the 13th, Part VI: Jason Lives. It is merely typical; intensely, aggressively, crudely, claustrophobically typical. There is a possibility that it is the most blithely unimaginative slasher movie I have ever- no. Not even a love of unwarranted hyperbole can make me say that The Dorm That Dripped Blood is the most unimaginative example of a subgenre so profoundly formulaic as the slasher movie. Let us be content to say just that it is remarkably and wholly uncreative, save in one respect. For if the film has any notoriety beyond its position of pride on the Video Nasties list - and i' faith, it did not end up among the banned 39, but only among the 33 also-rans, pursued and never stomped out - it is for the ending, which is by no means routine, and indeed gives the film a certain icky kick that plenty of equally boilerplate slasher pictures were never able to acquire. Whether or not that's a good thing...

But rather than skip gaily to the ending, let us begin at the beginning, a point where I still thought that The Dorm That Dripped Blood might turn out to be a sort of creative and interesting ride, given the limitations of the form. A series of quick fades in and back out reveal, very little actually: there's a truck on a dark road, there's a young man running in an uncertain outdoor space. Why do we care about the truck? and Where is the young man running from? Those questions don't get answered right away, for the filmmakers (an incestuous blend of Jeffrey Obrow as producer, co-director, co-writer, and editor; Stephen Carpenter as co-director, co-writer, and cinematographer; and Stacey Giachino as the third writer) are quickly going to toss us into the action: the poor kid gets caught by a nasty-minded assailant who chokes him to death while also cutting his hand in half. With the insight of brilliant first-timers, Obrow, Carpenter, and Giachino know that we're going to be so worked up by this legitimately effective scene - for there's nothing like a quick blast of what the FUCK is going on?! to get the adrenaline going - that we will remain on tenterhooks, waiting to see how everything ties together, putty in the directors' hands by the beginning of the main credits. In fact, they're too smart: they push the reveal of what happened in that first scene so far back that it ends up occurring after the movie is over, and we don't get to see it.

Presumably, the murder took place on the grounds of the dorm or co-op (the screenwriters are not aware that these are two different concepts) where the rest of the film is going to take place: a dorm scheduled for demolition over the winter holidays. The school at which this takes place is never identified, but it must be a desperately poor one, for instead of hiring a professional demolition crew to empty out the dorm, a group of students are given the task of staying over break and removing all the furniture and left-behind personal effects and the like. These absolutely lucky kids are Brian (David Snow), Craig (Stephen Sachs), and Patti (Pamela Holland), all taking their orders from the kindly middle-aged dorm mother, Joanne (Laurie Lapinski). Middle-aged, but still hip: Joanne not only attends the end-of-term party, she's even dating a student, a whingeing douchebag named Tim (Chris Morrill). And she even decorates her room like a college student would!

Okay, I'm not being fair: every slasher movie in the whole decade tried to sell us on "teenagers" and "college students" played by actors old enough to have kids in elementary school. But Lapinski - who has no other professional acting credits to her name besides this movie - is aggravatingly unpersuasive even by the standards of the subgenre. At any rate, we're introduced to her, our obvious Final Girl, when she and her boyfriend have a fight discussion at the party: he wants them to move in together, she doesn't think it's a good idea. Credit for some kind of screenwriting triumph: it shouldn't be possible, given the scenario, that we find both of these characters awful, but we do. Tim is a pushy, chauvinistic horndog, and Joanne is a wishy-washy tease who won't answer anything with a committal "yes" or "no". Gee, our heroine! And I was terrified, our hero, too, but Tim leaves pretty soon thereafter, and Joanne and company get down to the business of moving useless crap out of a building that's about to be destroyed.

There's one other helper I failed to mention, and that's Debbie (the debut role of a young Daphne Zuniga). But Debbie doesn't matter very much: she's been called away unexpectedly by a sick grandmother, so she can only help out for one day. At the end of which, she and her parents are all killed by an unseen psychopath, though whether he is unseen to build up a mystery, or because the film is so hellaciously eager to cut away from the killing scenes at the earliest possible second, it is hard to say. At any rate, the deaths of Debbie and her folks is a rather perfect catalogue for the movie to follow, particularly in all the ways that it hews to every possible slasher convention: the stupid variety in the deaths, as though the killer was just trying to show off a bunch of make-up effects; the rule that any person who announces that they'll be back soon will in fact not be; the lack of cohesion with the ultimate reveal of the killer (he wouldn't have any reason under the sun to kill these three - and arguably, not the opportunity), and the squeamishness about blood. Debbie herself gets a real corker of a death scene: unconscious, she gets her head run over by the family sedan. Especially in a motion picture declared to be "obscene" by a secular Western government, you'd maybe expect this moment to be depicted in visceral detail, with all the love of the effects artists' craft, but Obrow and Carpenter can't begin to imagine why.

Right now we're 16 minutes into an 84-minute film, and obviously it's been moving fast enough that something has to put a major brake on the action, else The Dorm That Dripped Blood would run through its short list of Expendable Meat in record time, and leave us with an hour of Joanne weeping as she washed blood off her face and body. And though the film's ending is unexpected, it's not that unexpected. So now comes the padding: for minute after endless minute, we watch the four students move stuff around, and then they stumble across the twenty-something weirdo John Hemmit (Woody Roll), a frizzy-haired nut who apparently spends most of his time hovering around the dorm. Even in 1982, only two years into the great slasher boom, I imagine most viewers were savvy enough to know instantly that Hemmit was a red herring, which makes the subsequent 30 minutes (largely concerned with the hunt to keep him from skulking around) faintly unendurable.

So, padding as we watch the kids muddle around in the dorm; padding as the Hemmit plot creaks along; oh, yes, there's also padding in the form of a few extra character plugged in to make sure the body count hits a nice level - the rule of thumb is that the better a slasher movie is, the lower its body count, and vice versa. And along the way, we get to spend time with four entirely blank slates: usually a slasher movie goes out of its way to identify each of the characters by trope, hence: The Nerd! The Slut! The Joker! The Bitchy Slut! In The Dorm That Dripped Blood, we have the male jerk, the male jerk who's a bit less of a jerk and sometimes wears plaid, the girl who scares easily, and Joanne, who thankfully remains memorable because of her transparent Final Girldom, if nothing else. And there's nothing else: the character development is less than nil, and what little we get makes the characters seem just terrible. Again, robust characters are not prominent features in slasher movies: I suspect it's so our entertainment won't be clouded when they die violently. But at least most of these pictures give you enough to tell the characters apart on the fly!

Along the way, we learn that two directors still wasn't enough to give the film anything like an appealing visual scheme: this is a dark movie, dark enough that it's frequently hard to tell what's happening and who it's happening to. At one point, Joanne argues with the electricity company, demanding that they leave the power on; but given how infrequently anyone turns on a light, it doesn't seem to matter.

Eventually, just about everyone is dead, and it's easy to predict at least 20 minutes in advance that (SPOILER) Craig is the killer because he has the hots for Joanne. It actually kind of makes sense, though not without creating some plot holes (one of which Craig openly mentions in his lengthy, talky explanation of what he's done: "You know how, if I'm the killer, it doesn't make sense that I got knocked out in that one scene? Well... so there."). And given that Craig is the resident practical joker, it gives the alternate title Pranks some very tiny measure of sense, though in that case I have to wonder if the title is giving too much away.

Right now, we can bring the movie up to the 77 minute mark and it has been a gloriously straightforward example of just how quickly the slasher model got ossified. Friday the 13th, the film that turned on the fire hose of North American slasher movies, came out just less than two years before The Dorm That Dripped Blood did, but the latter film manages to crib all of its important points: asinine whodunnit? Check. Arbitrary reason for isolating young people? Check. Killer who cannot possibly be where he needs to be for the plot to function? Paper-thin characters? Elaborate - to the point of absurdity - death traps? Checkity check check. And just for fun, the basic scenario of an empty dorm over Christmas break as the site of a killing spree, is cribbed from the Canadian Ur-slasher of 1974, Black Christmas (even the one otherwise noteworthy break from tradition, the presence of cops in the story, comes from Black Christmas). The purity of it all is thrilling: we have here the boiled-down essence of a slasher movie, everything tiresome and repetitive and chintzy about that subgenre gathered in one place. Though the true EverySlasher would probably have some kick-ass gore effects, not the demure looking-away the second any blood spurts out that we have here.

And then, the ending. I am torn, for it is a genuine surprise, and I prefer to never spoil such things, but it is also a bad surprise, one that makes a mediocre film altogether lousy and distasteful in retrospect. I don't know which is the sadder thought: that there exists someone who'd be so excited to see The Dorm That Dripped Blood that they'd want to exist ignorant of spoilers, or that I could be solely responsible for ruining that person's enthusiasm by bumbling about and mentioning what happens.

So I won't tell you how it ends. But it is not conventional at all, and as such, it demonstrates why conventions are useful, even mossy, worn-out conventions like we get all through the rest of the movie. Simply put, a film as ruthlessly banal as The Dorm That Dripped Blood has a certain duty to stick with its banality, and not indulge in something as whole-heartedly depressing and mean as the ending it gives us; it speaks to a sucker-punch mentality on the part of Obrow, Carpenter, and Giachino that might have resulted in a truly harsh thriller; but that thriller is not The Dorm That Dripped Blood. The end is absolutely not of a piece with the whole movie, and however queasily effective the end per se might be, all it does in context is to make a boring experience that much more sour and joyless.

Body Count: 10, an elegant number for a bloated, idiotic slasher movie, indeed.

Nastiness Rating: 2/5, not very Nasty. Oh, please: released in the glut of early '80s slasher movies, there dozens at least - hundreds might not be an undue exaggeration - of other candidates for the DPP list every bit as violent as The Dorm That Dripped Blood. It's no bloodier than Friday the 13th, Part 2, for example, which any connoisseur will tell you suffers greatly for being one of the tamest of all F13 pictures. I am profoundly mystified how this one ended up getting tagged for the list, unless it's the presence of the word "blood" in the title - and even that doesn't really do much to distinguish it. It wasn't successfully banned; at least that was too much bullshit for the British censors to bear.