Massage Parlor Murders (1973)

Author: Brett Gallman
Submitted by: Brett Gallman   Date : 2013-06-16 01:32

Directed by: Chester Fox, Alex Stevens, and George Dzundza
Starring: John Moser, George Spencer, and Sandra Peabody

Reviewed by: Brett Gallman

If you've never been to a massage parlor, This is a visit you'll NEVER forget!

To revisit the 70s American grindhouse and drive-in scene is to willingly plunge into celluloid grunge and filth. It’s a scene where sex, grime, and violence lurked around any street corner or rural pathway that offered an entrance into the seedy underbelly of cinema. There’s no mistaking the street-cred of Massage Parlor Murders, so to speak, as it’s a film that couldn’t have been spawned anywhere else. Hordes of better films emerged from this scene, but few exemplified its total, exploitative shamelessness: ripped from the sensationalist headlines of actual 42nd street exploits and then sent screeching directly to its theaters, Massage Parlor Murders is cheap, gratuitous, barely competent—and wildly compelling.

Co-directors Alex Fox, Chester Stevens, and George Dzundza (who also stars) tread right into exploitation’s seediest of underbellies: New York, early 1970s. Danger and sleaze practically choke out the air. Forty years later, it’s still potent and stripped of any pretenses here. Immediately, viewers are thrust into a massage parlor, which had quickly become all the rage, especially those that acted as a front for various prostitution rackets. Massage Parlor Murders leaves no doubt what we’re dealing with, as a girl (exploitation mainstay Chris Jordan) disrobes and promptly has her face smashed in by a client, who then strangles her to death. The grisly murder attracts the attention of a couple of dicks (George Spencer and John Moser), and the duo quickly discovers that this is only the beginning of a rash of similar murders haunting massage parlors up and down the city’s streets (it seems like there’s about a dozen around every corner).

Part proto-slasher flick, part police procedural, and a thoroughly impactful public service message against patronizing massage parlors, the film captures the pure abandon of the 70s hangover. The previous decade’s free love has been polluted and twisted into greasy, unsavory pool orgies and dingy, sterile back-channel encounters. While Massage Parlor Murders doesn’t join the ranks of greasy NYC triumphs like Maniac or New York Ripper, it carries a savage vibe, particularly when it acts as a travelogue for the nightlife, where neon displays and city lights belie the darkness tucked away at the corners (it’s practically porn for grindhouse era enthusiasts, who will get to take a stroll down 42nd street at various points and no doubt recognize several bygone landmarks). As so many natives will attest, the city is a character itself, and the bad news here is that it might be the most compelling one on the screen.

Indeed, all of that atmosphere has to compensate for a ton of incompetence. Massage Parlor Murders barely functions as a movie, much less a hard-boiled police procedural. Scenes are loosely strung together, and the movie seems to have been edited together with duct tape and crazy glue. The collection of sequences range from bewilderingly charming (there’s two scenes where Spencer’s wife chides him for doing his job and insists that maybe these loose hookers deserve to be killed) to wildly ambitious (a French Connection-inspired car chase unspools underneath the city’s train rails and ends with a knee-slapping punch-line). Spencer and Moser’s sluggish investigation expectedly leads to some encounters with various weirdoes, including an acid-brained astrologist (cult personality Brother Theodore) and a guy with a most bizarre fetish (whom the detectives peep on under the pretense of the investigation). Along the way, Moser even strikes up a conversation with one of the slain hookers’ roommate (Sanda Peabody of Last House on the Left fame). A long sequence follows them on a date that finds the two engaging in a melodramatic voiceover conversation as the two stroll the city’s salacious streets. He pleads for her to give up the life, while she assures him she’s only engaged in wholesome massage parlor activities.

Occasionally, a murder occurs, with at least one happening off-screen during the course of the film itself. Those that are seen are pretty brutal and feature that bright, garish Herschel Gordon Lewis flavor of crimson splashing about. Some face-bashings and strangulations add to the carnage, but this isn’t much of a splatter movie in the sense that the killer is armed with elaborate methods of disposal. He does get a little freaky during the post-mortem, a tic that bewilders the detectives until one of them has an outrageous “Eureka!” moment during a church service, at which point the film comes to life with a cacophonic mass of quick cuts and flashing images. You get the sense that the film is making it up as it goes along (the fact that there’s no credited writer helps in this assumption), but it actually leads to a reveal that’s straight out of later slasher movies. Not only does the killer have an M.O. (he’s not just killing random hookers), it’s one that would be featured more prominently years later.

All films are products of their time, and Massage Parlor Murders is especially so. It also owes a lot to its environment, as the exploitation circuit enabled semi-amateur, low-rent junk like this to exist in the first place. Rough around the edges doesn’t begin to describe it—there are gaffes (check out the blinking “corpses” at times), its acting is serviceable at best (Spencer awesomely oversells his “cop on the edge” routine), and it mostly serves as a nudity and gore showcase. After about five minutes, it’s easy to see how this film would have occupied the same space as its subject matter (in fact, one could imagine at least one 42nd street grindhouse butting up right next to one of these parlors). Long forgotten, the film was recently unearthed by Vinegar Syndrome, who promptly restored it for a DVD/Blu-ray special edition that has the film looking spectacularly. The transfer is so clean and vibrant that it almost feels at odds with the seedy material; on the other hand, the stereo Dolby track is riddled with hiss and pops but is otherwise quite intelligible. Special features include some outtakes, some trailers, a TV spot, and liner notes from Temple of Schlock’s Chris Poggiali, who gives an extensive history behind both Massage Parlor Murders and the scene from which it sprang forth (apparently, massage parlors doubling as brothels were extremely prominent). As oddly sordid as it is completely silly, Massage Parlor Murders is a fully functioning time capsule if nothing else. Rent it!

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