Girl’s Dormitory (2004) Review

Khabgah-e Dokhtaran Iranian horror – the phrase brings to mind various types of images – human rights abuses, theocratic regime of ayatollahs, nuclear fears drummed up by western media. But it is hardly a cinematic term. When it comes to filmmaking, all that English language publications have to say is about the same four names, the same sort of plots and the same themes. Stories about how the village’s only cow died and how profoundly and dramatically it affected the whole community. Obviously, those are Important, Ever Contemporary, Exploring the Human Condition Issues, but quite often looking beyond high profile festival fodder can reveal interesting things about a country demonised by so many commentators. As it turns out, Islamic Republic of Iran has produced a few titles of interest.

With an English title like that, “Girls’ Dormitory” could have come from the eighties – it evokes certain atmosphere of sleaze, images of naked breasts, some raging maniac armed with a phallic weapon, bad hairstyles and even worse music and clothes – basically some run of the mill American slasher. “Khabgah-e Dokhtaran”directed by Mohhamad Hossein Latifi was made in 2004 and given where it hails from, it is quite understandable that titillating images of boobs and boozing are not bound to make the final cut. On the surface the plot is familiar enough – two girls get accepted into a university in a small town near Teheran. When they get there, it turns out that the accommodation is not ready yet, and the girls are forced to rent a room in a hostel located in vicinity of a dilapidated, sinister building. The word on the street is that the place is haunted and better not to go near it…

The most interesting thing about Latifi’s film is watching how western genre conventions were translated into a different context, the director and his crew twisting the narrative’s staples to conform to the strict rules of Iranian censorship. There is no nudity obviously and the usual shenanigans of girls gone wild in college are absent too. What the viewer gets instead is a mix of comedy, family drama and horror. This results in tonal shifts which disrupt the rhythm of the movie. Comedic elements are of a slapstick sort and rather crude – a girl walking in on her father in the bathroom, chasing scenes around the house, students being terrified by the cockroach and the like. Drama and horror feel like stitched together from two completely different movies, and attempts at creating an atmosphere of dread are sometimes somewhat weird. Why would a heroine have a phone ringtone of a crying baby? It does not suit the person and feels awkward in the movie. “Girls Dormitory” appears to be a picture that does not know whether it wants to be more serious or hilarious, but the overarching theme has to be horror. That was probably done out of necessity (i.e. censorship) but also partly due to inexperience. There is this amateurish feel to the whole movie; the  photography is very bland and only comes alive in a few close ups.

Described by some as the first attempt to establish horror genre in Iran, “Khabgah-e Dokhtaran” did not get the acclaim and impact on the industry like for example “Rabies” did for Israeli cinema. The New York Times claimed that Iran’s horror movies had failed to take off and that there was no appetite for Latifi’s movie. According to The Independent the movie was a hit. For people interested in a more critical approach to genre it might be interesting to look closely at the role of females in the narrative, comparisons to western canons and so on. But for the more casual viewer of all things horror from all over the world those 90 minutes spent with the picture might not be so rewarding.

As mentioned above, there are a few movies from Iran that might interest genre aficionados, however “Girl’s Dormitory” does not have much to offer in terms of viewing pleasures. It is more the stuff for anthropologists of cinema. Hopefully, Ana Lily Amirpour’s upcoming “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night” – the first Iranian vampire western, as it is being described, will be a much more enjoyable experience. For those interested in movies made specifically in Iran (“A Girl Walks Home…” was shot in the US and is a co-production.) it is worth hunting the Internet for movies like “Zangha” (1985) or horror-themed pictures from the 1950s and 60s like Samouel Khachikian‘s “The Midnight Terror” (1961) and “Delirium”(1965).

By Grzegorz Roznerski