Wild Women With Steak Knives: THE DORM

The FREDDY'S DEAD director serves up killer makeovers in this underseen MTV movie.

By Alexandra Heller-Nicholas · @suspirialex · May 12, 2023, 8:22 PM EDT
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THE DORM (2014)

Editor's Note: In each Wild Women with Steak Knives entry, author Alexandra Heller-Nicholas examines a woman-directed horror film that's been largely overlooked or forgotten. Read them all here!

Rachel Talalay is hardly an obscure name when it comes to women who have directed horror. Famously making her feature debut on Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare in 1991, she'd already had a colorful career as a producer, working with the Elm Street crew first in that capacity in 1988 on Renny Harlin's A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master, also producing the beloved grandaddy of trash John Waters' darling cinematic wildebeests, Hairspray and Cry-Baby. It's hard not to admire Talalay's work as a director; although it got unforgivably shit-canned at the time, her adaptation of Alan Martin and Jamie Hewlett's cult comic Tank Girl to the screen in 1995 to this day remains one of the great cinematic wonders of the late 20th century (Team Lori Petty forever!), with Talalay moving successfully to more explicitly darker, dystopian terrain in 1993's Ghost in the Machine.

While none of these films are particularly hard to come by, her 2014 made-for-TV horror movie The Dorm has proven to be a little more obscure. This is, on the surface, pretty teen movie friendly stuff, as the film's very title might indicate, but along with Marina Sargenti's Mirror, Mirror and the late great Doris Wishman's Each Time I Kill, these three women-directed horror films share a fascination with young women and their ways of processing their own identities through mirrors. Each throws a supernatural spanner into the works into what on the surface appears to be there for pure giddy fun; seen collectively, however, they reveal some fascinating aspects regarding the pressure young women face when it comes to self-image when you have the patriarchy breathing down your neck which manifests as pressure not just by men, but by other women (and yourself) as well.

The Dorm was an MTV movie shot in Calgary, and Talalay liked that, on one hand, the film dealt with these more explicitly feminist issues about gender and identity, but that it also held at its core more classical horror tropes like haunted houses, possessions, etcetera. In an interview with The Calgary Herald in 2014, Talalay said it was very much the former that attracted her to the project; "What's remarkable about the project and what made me want to do it is that it has this very strong theme of female body image and questioning whether you would sell your soul for the perfect body," she said. "And in this new world of social media, the pressures on young people about body image are even worse than when I was a kid because it's everywhere. There's so much pressure on young people through advertising and it just seems to get worse. A horror film that examines the horror of what you would do for perfection and what that would do to you? What a great theme."

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The Dorm stars Alexis Knapp as Vivian, who decides to study away from home and travels to the fictional Harker University, where she will live in the eponymous dorm on campus at the not-at-all-horror-sounding Usher House. Recovering from a serious mental health episode, she's suspicious at first about the attempts of her new roomies to befriend her but slowly lets her guard down as they offer to makeover the unambiguously "frumpy" new girl (to be clear, this is "frumpy" in film terms; it's Alexis Knapp, she's gorgeous, so "frumpy" here is coded as just wearing paler lipstick and drab clothing). There's some supernatural ickiness afoot, however, and a simple clay facial mask appears to have some kind of dark ritual value; drifting into a nightmare space where Vivian is tormented about her ugliness (er, "ugliness"). When she wakes up, she finds the mask has, in fact, severely disfigured her. Peeling off the damaged skin - ta-da! - underneath, she is a cold stone fox. No more pale lipstick for Vivian!

Makeover montage complete, the boys soon follow, and Vivian falls for Philip (Max Lloyd-Jones). Encouraged to pursue her studies in mythology, Vivian starts getting a bad feeling that something more sinister is going on in the eponymous dorm (she's right!), all hinging around an ancient cult and its recently departed leader, the diabolically beautiful Violet Baker who seemingly died before Vivian's arrival (Knapp plays both Violet and Vivian, if the doppelganger themes weren't apparent already).

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The Dorm is an enormous amount of fun, and its most memorable scenes are those where Vivian tries to work through her paralyzing insecurities in conversation with her own reflection in a mirror. These start off relatively casually ("I wish I was pretty"), but as Violet and Vivian's identities begin to merge, we find what probably led Talalay to the project to start with: young women depend so much on mirrors to validate their own worthiness and value, based wholly on surface appearances, but in the fantastic world of supernatural horror, those reflections cannot be trusted. They are corrupted by outer forces that oftentimes act in direct opposition to the woman who looks in the mirror, hoping for answers, comfort and acceptance.

In recent years, Talalay has moved increasingly towards television (notably staying in horror terrain with episodes of Supernatural, South of Hell, The Dead Zone and Touching Evil, but probably most famous now for her work on Riverdale and Sherlock). While I, of course, don't begrudge her a career (and a steady paycheck) in TV, it's a shame her film work never really got the kudos it deserved. The Dorm is a case in point, a wild, fun ride that refuses to disguise its feminist agenda.