By Andrew Buckner
Rating: ****1/2 out of *****.
Director Richard Griffin has mastered the retro genre form. His 2008 venture, Nun of That, was a wickedly amusing take on 70’s B-movie actioners. He victoriously journeyed back to the days of low budget monsters filling drive-in screens in the 1950’s with 2010’s spectacularly entertaining and loving homage to old-fashioned alien tales, Atomic Brain Invasion. 2011’s The Disco Exorcist took the Saturday Night Fever spirit and painted it blood red. The results were endlessly clever and uproarious. Griffin’s recent Flesh For the Inferno (2015) modeled itself after terror features from the 80’s. The outcome was every bit as terrific as his previously mentioned endeavors. Seven Dorms of Death, whose essence is rooted much in the same decade as the previously stated composition and which was shot on video, shows that after thirty-one directorial credits, Griffin’s admiration, and effective parodying, of features from a bygone age is still every bit as welcome and on target as the works he’s honed beforehand. It also proves his style behind the lens is just as fresh and imaginative as ever. Griffin brings to mind Roger Corman and Lloyd Kaufman. This is in the manner in which he relishes B-movies and holds dear their distinctly unique charm. Yet, there are flashes of Mario Bava, Lucio Fulcio and the Italian Giallo master himself, Dario Argento, gleaming among the bloodshed. His craftsmanship, as well as his influences, are visible and their appreciation for them courses splendidly throughout.
Presented as a vanished VHS tape of a second feature from Baron Von Blah’s Celluloid Crypt, a late-night television program which becomes a pulpit for Michael Thurber’s scene stealing and undoubtedly transformative turn as the eccentric title host, we learn immediately that Seven Dorms of Death was uncovered from the deep, forgotten recesses of a library basement. This portion of information, delivered via scrolling text, becomes the first of many successful gags aimed at the endeavor’s low-grade quality placed throughout. As the work goes further on, we learn that the narrative itself concerns a cursed stage play. When a college in New England, filled with students who listen incessantly to Judas Priest, attempts to put on a production of the work a series of brutal murders commences. Those involved in the production are killed off one by one in unique ways. Also, keeping true to the tradition of the post- modern slasher offerings, the mystery of who may be the one enacting these fatal episodes is up to a pair of unorthodox detectives. One of whom the often used term “loose cannon” is more than fitting. These are Aaron Andrade as Vargas and Dan Mauro as Sam.
With grandly exaggerated mannerisms aplenty, same said dialogue, facial expressions and the far over the top performances equated with a buddy cop picture from the 90’s, this aforementioned duo is a perfect personification of the hilariously exaggerated and unrestrained spirit Griffin instills into every frame of this side-splitting masterwork. Laura Pepper is just as triumphant in her portrayal of Jane Peach: a reporter lifted right from an archetypical 1930’s crime saga. Mahoney (Dave Almeida), fares just as well as the editor for Peach’s newspaper, Dunwich Penney Saver. Vincent Perrone, as Officer Kosinski, is also wonderful in his obviously tongue in cheek depiction.
The rest of the cast mimics the varied assortment of caricatures found in teen related fright flicks, especially those in the 80’s, especially well. Lead by Anna Rizzo as the spectacled and socially awkward, Severin, Hannah Lum as Bambi, Graham King as Chad, Mike Zuccola as the undergraduate of the occult and heavy metal aficionado, Mark, and Rich Tretheway as Lumpy, every portrayal here is top notch. Evan Clinton, as the drama professor and play director, Jason, enacts his often grandiose role spectacularly. The flare Clinton puts into his every gesture and line creates a character that is consistently watchable.
The several on-screen deaths themselves also carry on these characteristics incredibly well. They lampoon the visibly second-rate effects in the B movies it mirrors itself after to an ardent and splendidly comic outcome. A drill through the head near thirty minutes in oversees its victim replaced during the goriest bits with what is discernibly a mannequin. As the sequence goes on, it drives this point home to great comic consequence. Such is one of the most interesting uses of such humor. Such occurrences, especially one such bit in the finale where a character states that his life and his death are one and the same, only punctuates the plethora of wildly well-timed, manic self-referential humor at hand. It also has intentional goofs, such as a scene where the director yells “cut” and the actors all breathe a sigh of relief and go about their normal business, which is just as effectively raucous. Yet, the cinematography by Jill Poisson, the moody music by Timothy Fife and Daniel Hildreth, sound by Anna Goodchild and David Ryan Kopcych, as well as the editing by Griffin himself, are all seriously skillful and striking. These attributes, along with Torey Haas’ stop motion animation and make-up by Jordan Pacheco and Margaret Wolf, seamlessly create the illusion that we are seeing a cult classic from the 80’s. This movie works splendidly as an extended wink at the audience. It is just as much a professional display of the talent at hand.
Likewise, the screenplay by Matthew Jason Walsh drips with giddy facetiousness and fun. It has the even pace and build-up that is much on par with the specific brand of motion picture it is modeling itself after. Michael Varrati penned some of the wonderfully entertaining fake commercial bits sprinkled in between the main program throughout. They are just as successful in celebrating past shlock, through new venues entire, as the main feature itself. Among the most memorable is the novel adaption called “Yesterday’s Winds of Tomorrow’s Fortune”, the 70’s grindhouse style Dracula’s House of Sadism and the self-explanatorily titled, “Smooth Nut and Vacuum Ads”. “1-900 Hot Link Commercial”, penned by Pepper, and Future Shock 199o, scribed by Alex Divincenzo”, are just as riotous. They are also well executed and issue the great comic timing found throughout. Varrati also contributed text for the ghoulishly delightful sequences of Baron Von Blah’s Celluloid Crypt (which sport incredible lighting work from John Mosetich). These elements are all just as winning as the feature itself. Such luminous characteristics only further heightens the script’s appeal. Varrati is just amusing on-screen as Von Blah’s off-balance puppet sidekick, Sockenstein.
Seven Dorms of Death is an eighty-nine minute delight. It will appeal most readily to those of us who grew up with an unquenchable thirst for low-budget opuses. Moreover, those of us who have an unyielding esteem for the real life variations of Baron Von Blah (for me it was Joe Bob Briggs on TNT’S Monstervision) who showed a double bill of Z grade features on their respective programs every week. Griffin, as always, finds the right note to create his special blend of admiration filled genre spoof instantly. He continues on that course throughout the entirety. In turn, he delivers another deliriously innovative throwback to a time and cinematic style that we, fellow horror film and cinephiles in general, hold dear. This is an incredibly successful love letter; another fantastic addition to Griffin’s catalogue of unconventional satires. It is also a must-see for those of us who vividly recall staying up late into the night, put under a spell by Von Blah’s true life counterparts. Griffin and production company Scorpio Film Releasing’s latest is nostalgia inducing greatness of the highest order.