The Tomb of Terror – The Dorm That Dripped Blood (1982)
Every Saturday night The Tomb of Terror opens, unleashing reviews of the obscure and the classic in horror cinema.
Slasher films are one of my favorite horror subgenres. They aren’t particularly deep films, but they are usually full of the best gore effects and have a sense of fun about them. One interesting part of slasher films is that, on paper, every one is the same. A mysterious killer picks off teenagers as they engage in sex, drugs, and bad manners in some isolated location. What separates the good from the rest is how it changes this simple formula. Someone dies who you don’t expect? “Awesome.” The identity of the killer is a genuine surprise and not a cheat? “Wow.” Someone gets cut in half with a machete while doing a handstand? “This is the greatest movie ever made!” Little tweaks can make all the difference between a Black Christmas (1974) and a Halloween 5. This week’s film, The Dorm That Dripped Blood, sticks stubbornly to every formula in the slasher book, offering little in the way ingenuity or surprise.
Joanne (Laurie Lipinski) isn’t living the typical college existence. Winter break is coming, and while everyone else is partying she’s preparing for two weeks of work on campus. An old dorm is going to be demolished and Laurie has been put in charge of a cleanup crew made up of other students. Why would the school put students in charge of such a big operation? Either there was a free dorm location and no budget for more characters or the school in the film is really cheap. Your enjoyment of the film will likely determine which of those answers you go with.
Joining Joanne on this strange cleanup team are four other students: jokester Craig (Stephen Sachs), hunky Brian (David Snow), Patti (Pamela Holland), and Debbie (Daphne Zuniga). Those short descriptions are all we get in the way of characterization. I couldn’t think of any other descriptive terms for the girls because honestly the only thing to differentiate them is that Debbie went on to be the princess in Spaceballs. As these interchangeable youngsters work on throwing away hundreds of beds, an unseen killer picks them off one by one. Of course, there has to be a bigger body count than five in a slasher film, so random bodies show up, including a creepy student, a janitor, and a local dumpster diver.
There really isn’t much more to the film than that. By the time we get 15 minutes in, the minimal plot has stopped moving forward, and we get bland suspense sequences strung together. Not only are these scenes not scary, but the gore effects (the bread and butter of any good slasher) aren’t even up to snuff. This film was the first effort from makeup FX artist Matthew Mungle. He would go on to a prolific career and even won an Oscar for Bram Stoker’s Dracula. None of the talent he would later display is evidenced here. The blood splats look like they were squeezed from an off-camera ketchup bottle, and an elaborate scene of a power drill going into the back of a head is rendered laughable by a wax dummy head. This movie is well regarded in some circles because of the variety of weapons used by the killer, but for me the weak effects took all the power out of the death scenes. The most interesting weapon (one that I haven’t seen in any other slashers) is a baseball bat embedded with nails. This piece of nastiness ended up on some posters for the film, but like everything else in the movie, it isn’t executed particularly well. We see someone get bashed in the head repeatedly with the bat. With some good editing, this could’ve been the brutal highlight of the film. Instead, we see it all in one shot, in which it is painfully obvious that the bat isn’t making hard contact and the killer is pulling each swing.
Not all of this is Mungle’s fault. Sure, he made some bad effects, but it’s the director’s job to shoot and edit it correctly. Directors Stephen Carpenter and Jeffrey Obrow (The Kindred) shoot most of the film in wide shots, and don’t work hard to cover up the visible seams of the picture. This is most likely because they didn’t have the budget for coverage. As viewers, we don’t know this, and so we are left watching boring passages of inane dialogue and scene after scene of characters walking in the dark. I’m sure these walking scenes were intended to build suspense, but the complete lack of style sucks the film of any atmosphere. Since this is an 80s slasher film, there is also an overabundance of killer POV shots. Truth be told, I’m not a big fan of the killer POV shot. It’s a staple of slashers, but I never find myself feeling uneasy when I’m seeing through the eyes of the killer. In this film, these shots go overboard and aren’t regulated to only the suspense scenes. We see random shots of the killer’s POV as he walks along the roof of a school building and looks at the dorm. In this scene, we also see the killer’s bed—a stained mattress on the roof—which, once you get to the “surprise” reveal of the killer’s identity, makes absolutely no sense.