AKA: Yuan líng sùshè zhi Ren ou laoshi
A young student attending a rural school that just let out for holiday mysteriously goes missing one night. Her friends that are still at the school are baffled as to her disappearance. The only clue they can find is her beret found outside a forbidden and sealed off dorm room. Her friends can’t even figure out why she’d been near the area. Eventually they pry out of the night watchman that this particular part of the dorm has been closed off for ten years after a tragic accident. Not only had the rooms caught fire and caused the death of one of the school’s teachers, but the place is now said to be haunted, with strange occurrences having plagued the area in years since.
At first the kids are skeptical of this tall tale, but when a half charred woman in a white flowing robe attacks and nearly kills one of them, they start to believe that maybe the crazy night watchman isn’t so crazy after all.
Crap. WTF have we gotten ourselves into?
Before I begin, I’d like to give a WTF shoutout to IMDB, for this gem of a summary they currently have sitting up on their site for this film. So I apologize to everyone in advance for the following, but this is a direct quote:
“It tells the mysterious disappearance of the small tea of the Baroque Academy students. Her companion accidentally discovered the mysterious legend of the Doll Teacher buried in the campus for ten years in the process of searching for her. Horror story caused by the pending case.”
I’m sorry, but what the hell is any of that even supposed to mean? That’s not a synopsis, that’s random word vomit. Did they just try to Google Translate some original Chinese summary they were given into English and call it a day? I am completely baffled.
Much like a lot of people in this movie.
Anyway….Haunted Dormitory: Marionette Teacher is a Chinese mystery/horror outing from 2017, and is apparently part of a larger series of Haunted Dormitory movies that encompasses a grand total of….hang on, let me check….two whole films. And before anyone asks, the IMDB summary for that film is even worse than this one. There’s not really too much said about the two movies, and after having watched this one I can see why. The film has some interesting intentions, trying to weave together several different ideas and genres, but while some film’s can do that seamlessly, the output here feels like a mish-mashed effort in mediocrity.
For starters, the film’s biggest drawback is that it’s story, little of it though there is, is a cheesy mess. Don’t get me wrong, it’s perfectly followable, but it’s still a mess. It’s like they borrowed every “ghost story” cliche they could think of and tried to cram it into this one movie. Except you also have to remember that this film is from China, and China has censors, so it’s every “ghost story” cliche stripped down to a PG-13 level. For example: there is a shower scene, but you only get hints at nudity, not any actual nudity. And because it’s cast is primarily students, they also felt the need to throw in an awkward “romance” angle, just to sweeten the already cumbersome plot. As a result, just about everything after the opening fire scene feels like something ripped right out of a Scooby Doo episode, but without the benefit of actually having the talking dog. You have a kooky and suspicious night watchman who conveniently lays out the whole backstory, a group of kids searching for their friend who think the best way to do this is to run around and scream her name for a solid 5-minutes, a fake out ending that makes absolutely no goddamn sense, and apparently no one is able to call the police until right up until the very end. On top of that, right from the beginning every character makes terribly senseless choices that are clearly made, not with the assumption of any common sense, but purely to set up the scenario for an “exciting” scene. The very first victim basically sets the tone for the entire film when, in the dead of night, she spends a solid five minutes following the creepy, breathless whispers of “Save me”/”Help Me” around a deserted campus (all while constantly repeating “Who’s there?”), before tearing down a gigantic seal and further following the voice into a deserted room.
Yes, that is the kind of plot and senseless dialogue you’re working with here folks, and it only gets worse from there.
No, seriously, I had to watch this chick do nothing but wander in the dark and hear the movie utter the same 3-4 phrases for 5 minutes. After sitting through that her death was a damn blessing.
Sadly, the editing and imagery don’t do the film any favors either. Well, scratch that. That’s not entirely true. The editing and only some of the imagery doesn’t do the film any favors. Most of the scenes are actually laid out pretty well, with decent angles, lighting and composition. There’s even an attempt or two at an “artsy” shot. So on the whole the film actually looks pretty damn good. But then it throws in moments where you have to wonder just what the hell they were thinking. Dumb plotting moments aside, most of the film maintains a rather dark and haunting atmosphere. But then there are random moments where the film does a total 180, and suddenly it cuts to a scenic landscape (presumably the film’s location), filmed with bright lights, vivid colors and a soft filter right out of a cheesy romance movie. It’s incredibly jarring and feels completely out of place, like you’ve accidentally switched to a different film.
Rah! I kill you!
The next day…
Then there’s the ghost herself. The imagery of her is pretty consistent, but the film clearly thinks she’s more impressive than she really is and tends to linger on her far more than it should, stringing out what could have once been effective scenes into humorous territory. I don’t know about you, but I’m not really terrified by a ghost that likes to “pose” for the camera for awkward amounts of time. The filmmakers also seemed to like shoving her on their dolly and letting her “roll” everywhere. Stuff like that is really only effective the first couple times you see it. Once you start rolling her around multiple times, especially when it’s in the same scene, her movements stop feeling ethereal and it begins to make her look like a 35+ year old ghost with a very unusual skateboard fettish.
Oh, and they never fucking explain why they call her the “Marionette Teacher”. I thought they were gonna have her use her victims as puppets like the advertising imagery suggested, or be obsessed with dolls or… I don’t know, something! But no, she’s just your typical, vengeful, murdeorus ghost out to wreak havoc. They just gave her that name for shits and giggles, I guess. I was super pissed.
On final note, there are the subtitles and, perhaps it was just the version I was watching, but it seems to me that these things were pretty poorly done. Proper grammar, spacing and punctuation seem to have been optional requirements when putting this together. Their timing is also pretty atrocious. I consider myself a fairly competent subtitle reader at this point, and even I was having trouble keeping up with the rapid-ass pace these things were being thrown at me. Add the fast pace to the spacing and punctuation issues, and I almost guarantee that a lot of people are going to end up pausing to rewind to try to catch what they’ve missed, or just end up giving up altogether and live in blissful ignorance.
Yes, one of their names is Daisy. Not Daben Daisy. Just Daisy. Hence the reason punctuation is important.
I was kind of hoping Haunted Dormitory: Marionette Teacher would at least be a wee bit better than some of the scores I saw suggested. But, alas, it’s really not. It looks nice and it sounds okay, but the editing is choppy, the acting is often over the top, and the plot is basically a cut-and-paste of other ghost movie plotlines. On top of that, the ending is about as cheesy/cringey as they come and the subtitles are just…not great. There’s just no way around that last one. It’s the kind of movie you can easily make fun of, but it’s also one you feel a bit sorry for. Because you can see potential in it, but you just know they cheaped out and you got this instead. If you like cheesy ghost stories or just need something to mock, then feel free to give Haunted Dormitory: Marionette Teacher a try, but if you’re looking for something with a bit more substance, look elsewhere.
Haunted Dormitory: Marionette Teacher is available on a variety of streaming services. You can even find it free on YouTube. It should be fairly simple to track it down.