“Dorm” – A.J. Hakari

You might not think it, but Dorm is a pretty tough sell of a movie. With the Asian horror market as increasingly prevalent as it is, this Thai feature is being marketed as such. But don’t mistake this for another one of those movies where a long-haired ghost scares the dickens out of a bunch of poor saps dumb enough to cross paths with it. Dorm has more in common with the likes of Pan’s Labyrinth and The Orphanage, in how it uses the horror genre as a springboard with which to dive into deeper topics than one might expect. Not one to saturate the screen with scares, this film works very well most as a coming-of-age tale, albeit with a bit of spooky edge to it.


Hardly any kids like heading back to school after a nice vacation. But for seventh-grader Chatree (Chalee Trairut), going back is doubly painful, as his dad has suddenly decided to switch schools mid-term, shipping him off to a junior high boarding school. Thrust into a scary new environment for the first time, Chatree can only sit back and assume his obligatory duties as the new kid: enduring the occasional teasing, making sure never to cross stern schoolmarm Miss Pranee (Jintara Sukaphatana), and soaking in all the scary ghost stories pertaining to the academy’s past. Then one day, our young hero finally makes a friend in the form of Vichien (Sirachuch Chienthaworn), a long-time student who seems to know everything there is to know about the school and its goings-on. But just as Chatree harbors the real reason why his father sent him away, so Vichien has his own secret or two, and it’s going to take their strong friendship to help one another leave their respective troubles behind.


**WARNING: Spoilers lie ahead in the following paragraph**


It should come as no surprise, considering Dorm’s status as at least partially a horror flick, that Chatree’s new friend is actually a ghost. But while lazier, less craftsmanlike hands would build the entire story around this painfully obvious premise, the makers of Dorm deal their hand fairly early on, taking the focus away from Vichien’s spectral nature and casting it upon how he and Chatree come to aid one another as increasingly good buddies. So yeah, don’t expect a scare-a-minute endeavor; what moments the film does set aside to go “Boo!” at the audience are dealt with early on, adding to the film’s mystique instead of prolonging the running time. Dorm is more akin to the oft-overlooked ’80s picture Lady in White than with the Ringu series, using its horror pass more as inspiration than as a crutch. Chatree’s time is spent not running from a ghost but merely hanging out with him, the strange dynamic of their friendship helping him deal with real world matters like talking to girls and taking on more responsibilities.


Dorm’s success depends greatly on how well the viewer identifies with the main character, a task that director/co-writer Songyos Sugmakanan accomplishes with flying colors. Sugmakanan perfectly captures the story from the perspective of a kid who’s a veritable stranger in a strange land, living away from home for the first time, and in a place teeming with creepy urban legends, at that. A big draw is Chalee Trairut’s convincing and sympathetic performance as Chatree. While all too often you see kids who are suspiciously wise beyond their years, Trairut looks and acts like an actual kid, a youngster who’s nervous enough without his best friend being a ghost having to enter the picture. Sirachuch Chienthaworn is also very good here as the school’s resident spirit, a lad stuck in perpetual childhood who needs Chatree’s help to move on. First and foremost, Dorm is a delicate little tragedy, and as the pieces fall into place as the film winds down to a close, prepare to be more involved with the characters than you would ever have expected from just looking at the DVD cover.


This isn’t to say that Dorm doesn’t have its share of flaws, which include a sometimes-dragging pace, a bit of a predictable streak, and a pretty tactless way of introducing a certain element to the plot that comes into play during the climax. But nevertheless, Dorm is an uncommonly well-made picture, one that makes you realize the pleasures of not judging a book by its cover.


Rating: ★★★☆


-A.J. Hakari


Read more of A.J.’s reviews at ReelTalk Movie Reviews, Classic Movie Guide, Terror Tube, and Screen Spotlight.

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