The kicked-up dirt, the caked mud on my leather shoes, and my rag-tag group---the overweight bully, the bespectacled math genius, the giggly volleyball players, the quiet Catholic that was me when I was in grade school---conquered after-school boredom with trips to dark corridors and empty classrooms. If we were feeling more daring than usual, we would go to the garden behind a Gothic, metal church where it was said the school's priests were buried. One time, we did see a ghostly figure, a thin old man who had ashen-gray skin, walking aimlessly around the garden. My friends screamed and ran, stumbling on rocks and shrubs. I was rooted to the ground. Because he had seen me. I remember my knees felt like buckling but I stood firm as the old man walked toward me. When he was less than a few feet away, he called out to me, "Hijo! Have you seen my nail cutter?" I shook my head, and suddenly ran away. I never told my friends that the old man was an almost senile priest.
Dorm (Dek Hor/เด็กหอ) is magical and horrifying this way. Horror with wide-eyed wonder, the kind that is an adventure shared with friends. Director Songyos Sugmakanan is a fantastic storyteller and starts the film with boyhood nostalgia quite similar to his early work along with other directors, Fan Chan, and Japanese thriller 20th Century Boys. Chatree (Charlie Trairat, also the lead of Fan Chan) is plucked from everything familiar and is sent to a boarding school where he is bullied by a gang of students. Songyos cloaks the dormitory in a mossy palette, giving it a more sinister, swampy feel as strange things begin to happen at night.
The frights are simple but ingeniously executed, and often aims to be evocative of childhood fears. The trips to the bathroom with every shadow stretched like clawed hands, the howling dogs, the school disciplinarian we imagined to be the devil incarnate (played delicately tethering to insanity by Thai veteran actress Chintara Sukapatana), the lock that seems to click into place by itself, unearthed forgotten jitters. Songyos doesn't aspire for grand. He is after our memory, and once the connection has been established, disbelief goes into suspended animation. I was a boy again wandering around corridors.
Horror turns to horrifying heartbreak when Chatree befriends Vichien (Michael Sirachuch Chientaworn), another loner who turns out to be a ghost. The hints were pretty obvious but the reveal was still a surprise, a reveal that was so unexpected and so refreshingly original that I gasped at both the anticipated plot twist and the surprising loneliness it meant.
Many would argue that Dorm isn't really a horror flick. Technically, it is. Horror in fiction is a disturbance in the human experience by supernatural forces. As a film, it does not go for the usual out-for-vengeance ghost with creaking bones. It may not frighten but it does horrify---seeing a friend die and decay is horrifying. Alienation, guilt, being unloved, more so.
With Dorm, Songyos attacks an old, familiar genre with such brutal grace that it is at once too beautiful and too painful to watch.
Dorm (Dek Hor/เด็กหอ)
Directed by Songyos Sugmakanan (Fan Chan/Hormones)
Starring Charlie Trairat (Fan Chan/Hormones), Michael Sirachuch Chientaworn (Hormones), Chintara Sukapatana