Seven Dorms of Death: When Good Directors Go Bad

dormsRhode Island-based independent film director Richard Griffin knows how to make movies, and he’s made over 20 of them. In his latest outing presented at a sold-out world premiere at the Route One Cinema Pub in North Attleboro, Massachusetts, on Sunday, February 21, he set out to recreate his beloved 1980s schlock horror even more faithfully than ever before. The result is a deliberately – and hilariously – bad movie, complete with continuity errors, boom microphones intruding into scenes, and actors freezing awkwardly until an off-screen voice yells, “Cut!”

Seven Dorms of Death, in the best tradition of bad horror titles, has little to do with dorms, let alone seven of them. An opening text scroll explains that what the viewer is about to see was the second half of a late-night horror double feature taped off the air from a low-powered UHF television station in 1987, recovered from a Betamax video cartridge discovered in the basement of a Rhode Island library. We are then immersed into Baron von Blah’s Celluloid Crypt, hosted by the eponymous baron (Michael Thurber), an absurd third-rate vampire character with an obviously fake Middle European accent who alternately presents and trashes the feature presentation, something of a cross between Boris Karloff and Wile E. Coyote, and his sidekick “Sockenstein” (Michael Varrati), a sock puppet who delivers lines such as, “We’re all staring into the abyss!” Thurber as an actor wonderfully evokes the age of classic horror.

Every so often, random (fake) commercials interrupt for such bizarre things as a made-for-television soap opera based on the (fake) 1980s-ish romance novel Yesterday’s Winds of Tomorrow’s Fortune by an author whose previous books have included A Kiss Before Trying to Kiss Again and Pat Nixon Claims the Night. My personal favorite fake commercial is for a program Future Shock 1999 set in what is anticipated to be a post-apocalyptic nightmare on the cusp of the new millennium, although a short digression into Dracula’s Castle of Sadism, a period drama rather closely inspired by the Marquis de Sade, was a close second.

The main feature within the film, Seven Dorms of Death (SDoD), or at least what we can see of it between lengthy discursions by the baron and his sock puppet, interruptions from commercials, and occasionally even random drop-outs due to snow or tape skips, is a very 1970s/1980s-style Lovecraftian muddle about some college kids at Dunwich University rehearsing at the Charles Ward Theater for a play, The King in Yellow, that causes horrific things to happen when it is performed. Amazingly, Griffin’s deliberately bad film-within-the-film has better writing, acting and production than some of the utter crap it intends to parody, such as the 1970 abomination The Dunwich Horror.

SDoD begins with a collegiate tryst between “Edie” (Laura Minadeo) and “Bruno” (Christian Masters), the latter of whom meets his predictable end at the hands of a masked killer wielding a potato peeler. The police are called in, “Detective Sergeant Vargas” (Aaron Andrade) and his partner “Sam” (Dan Mauro), who proceed to overact every period procedural cliché from Dirty Harry to Kojak, along with a bit of Magnum, P.I. on crack cocaine. Griffin noted quite seriously introducing the premiere that it was a challenge to get actors of excellent ability to play their roles intentionally badly, but Andrade’s police detective was so over-the-top ridiculous that the character carried a substantial part of the film: delivering idiotically inappropriate snippets from Shakespeare and non-seqitur lines such as “It ain’t worth two squirts of owl piss to me!” with vibrant emotion and emphasis, Andrade’s virtuoso portrayal of a narcissistic, hard-boiled, lunatic completely took over and filled up the screen whenever he was on it. The audience eventually started laughing in anticipation every time Andrade appeared in a scene, before he even said or did anything.

“Bambi” (Hannah Lum), “Kruz” (Tobias Wilson), “Chad” (Graham King), “Lumpy” (Rich Tretheway), and “Severin” (Anna Rizzo) are the student actors. “Jason” (Evan Clinton) is the beret-wearing drama professor directing the play, and his flamingly gay persona unnerves the homophobic Vargas. Lumpy happens to be quarterback for the school football team – “Go Squids!” – and is a bit slow in the intellectual department. Lum is outstanding as a Judas Priest-obsessed airhead who is so reminiscent of Flashdance that she even wears leg warmers while otherwise naked in the shower. “Mr. Felg” (Bill Pett), the theater janitor, witnesses the killing but doesn’t pay attention because he “doesn’t meddle in other people’s affairs.”

As the murders mount up, “Jane Peach” (Laura Pepper) is a reporter who despite her Pulitzer Prize-winning history is reduced to working for the Dunwich Penney Saver (sic) under editor “Mahoney” (Dave Almeida), and she gets past “Officer Kansinski” (Vincent Perrone) into a crime scene.

“Mark” (Mark Zuccola), a long-haired metal-head and “student of the occult,” is caught hanging around the theater but has an alibi for the murder, a time-stamped receipt from the local Safeway at 432 Lovecraft Road. It turns out that he has been writing a “satanic code translator” on his “Tandy home computer” – which, in yet another presumably deliberate continuity error, contains no Tandy parts but is actually a Commodore VIC-20 pushed up against an Apple Macintosh SE – he claims “is just like the one NASA uses.” After inserting a 5.25-inch floppy disk, the computer outputs an inverted pentagram over the words “Yog Sothoth”, the character Lumpy is playing on stage.

It’s impossible to convey the surreal nature of the experience of watching this production. Griffin has really outdone himself this time, breaking just about all of the conventions of film making to inspire an hour and a half of continuous laughter, defying audience expectations in ways that a less daring director would not risk. Suffice it to say that the final unmasking of the killer is one of the funniest scenes I’ve ever watched on film.

Seven Dorms of Death, directed by Richard Griffin, from Scorpio Film Releasing. Griffin has said that there will be several additional screenings scheduled in the near future, details to be announced. Trailer clip.

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