During the ’70s/’80s slasher-movie glut, it was relatively easy for novice filmmakers to throw together a cheap flick filled with blood and flesh, with the expectation that it would get some kind of release and maybe even make a little money. Some of these on-the-fly movies were genuinely clever and frightening, others laughably bad. But the vast majority were workmanlike successions of murder scenes interspersed with youngsters-hanging-out scenes, and notable now more for their peripherals: the locations where they were shot, or the non-actors who gave funky performances, or the odd make-up effect or music cue.
That’s definitely the case with 1982’s The Dorm That Dripped Blood (formerly known as The Third Night, Death Dorm, and Pranks). Infamous in its day for being one of the “video nasties” banned in the UK, The Dorm That Dripped Blood is unquestionably disgusting at times, but also oddly low-key, even congenial. Writer-directors Stephen Carpenter and Jeffrey Obrow (along with their writer-producer partner Stacey Giachino) were UCLA students when they made the movie, and conceived the story while living in the co-op dorm where they set and shot it. Even more than most movies of this type and era, The Dorm That Dripped Blood is a textbook case of a kids putting on a show with whatever’s on hand.
And it sure helps that Carpenter, Obrow and Giachino could draw on the resources of UCLA. They had future Oscar-winning make-up artist Matthew Mungle whipping up dismembered body parts, and future blockbuster composer Christopher Young pounding on the high keys of the piano and layering in screechy violins. They even had a pre-fame Daphne Zuniga in a small role. What they didn’t have is much of a story—just a group of college students spending their break cleaning out their dorm while being stalked by a maniac—but The Dorm That Dripped Blood features a decent third-act plot twist, and an ending that suggests a deeper reading of the film as a comment on class privilege.
Carpenter, Obrow, and Giachino don’t quite cross that line to social relevance, or even pop-art. There’s a bit too much “get the shot quick before we have to return the equipment” to this movie, and a bit too much of the filmmakers trying to fit all the pieces together irrespective of any personal passion. They didn’t have access to a Steadicam, so the movie’s plethora of P.O.V. shots look shaky (and frequently too dimly lit). Some of the kills are niftily staged—including one featuring a spiked baseball bat—but the progression of corpses is ultimately pretty rote, with no hook. For personality, viewers will have to turn to the Carpenter/Obrow commentary track on The Dorm That Dripped Blood DVD/Blu-ray set, where they talk about how they knew everybody involved with the movie, and point out which scenes they shot before they really knew what they were doing, and which scenes were shot when one or the other of them was taking a final. It’s there that the real nature of these low-budget slasher movies is revealed at last: They’re home movies with stage blood.
Key features: The aforementioned commentary track by Carpenter and Obrow, plus interviews with Young and Mungle.