Death Spa (1989)

Author: Brett Gallman
Submitted by: Brett Gallman   Date : 2014-06-01 07:37

Written by: James Bartruff, Mitch Paradise
Directed by: Michael Fischa
Starring: William Bumiller, Brenda Bakke, Merritt Butrick

Reviewed by: Brett Gallman

You'll sweat blood!

Maybe itís only because Death Spa was released just as the decade was slipping out the door, but every one of its 87 minutes feel like a concentrated effort to get the 80s out of its system. Even though Iíve probably said this about other films in the past, this shit is peak 80s: neon, spandex, the health-club craze, jazzercise, aerobics, gay panic, technophobia, big hair, buddy cops, and an ample amount of splatter to serve as the cherry on top. The only way it could be more 80s is if it commented on the Iran-Contra affair or some shit. When people think about the eraís cornball splatter flicks, this is exactly the sort of film they have in mind. Sometimes, thatís a bad thing, but not in this case because Death Spa absolutely rules: not content to just be a schlubby representative for the era, it puts its back into it to deliver a rousing, blood-soaked send-off for the 80s.

The Starbody Health Spa is an upscale yuppie gym replete with all of the latest equipment and gear, including an elaborate computer monitoring system, which sounds like a good idea until someone hijacks it to murder the gymís members. Bewildered club owner Michael (William Bumiller) is still reeling from his wifeís recent suicide (which oddly hasnít kept him from striking up a new romance with Brenda Bakke) and suspects this to be a homicidal power play by his business partners to force him out. Perhaps David ((Merrit Butrick), Michaelís weirdo brother-in-law and designer of the gymís high-tech gadgetry, is behind the bloodshed. Or maybe itís just Michael himself, as a couple of local detectives (Frank McCarthy and Rosalind Cash) suspect.

Just about everyoneís a suspect, but Iíll be damned if any suspicions are on the right track because Death Spa strays pretty far out into left field after hitting multiple horror bases, including gender confusion, vengeful spirits, and possession. In its brief but loony runtime, it leads viewers down a nutty path lined with blood-soaked twists and turns; itís a splatter film whose plot developments are as entertaining as the splatter itself. In fact, itís about as much fun as a film centered on a grieving husband could possibly beóshit, even his pensive, reflective moments are a hoot. Apparently, Michaelís the type of guy who likes to kick back, relax, and wistfully recall the moment his wife lit herself on fire while confined to a wheelchair. The circumstances surrounding this are eventually revealed to be pretty sad (as situations involving self-immolation are wont to be), but I dare you not to laugh at this moment and many others in Death Spa.

Iím not sure if calling it a parody is even accurate. Director Michael Fischa certainly marches through the proceedings with his eye cocked and with his tongue firmly planted in his cheek; however, thereís something oddly sincere about the filmóitís almost as if someone dared him to make the best possible movie about a killer gym, and he called their bluff. I mean, thereís a reason weíve seen a dearth in this sub-genre ever since. Nobody wants to be the guy taking the stage after Death Spa, a film that often embraces the body count appeal of slashers in ludicrous fashion, such as a bit that finds a guy squashed to death by an exercise machine gone haywire. Far from your run-of-the-mill slash-and-stalk business, Death Spa luxuriates in ingenious, supernaturally-tinged dispatches before indulging in a climactic bloodbath set at a Mardi Gras bash. Iím also guessing this is the only time Chekovís gun has been applied to a blender.

If the film only delivered top-notch gore (which it does in spades), itíd be just about everything you expect from a cheap splatter flick. Death Spa puts in extra work, though, with its quirks and eccentricities, like the opening credits, which look like an aerobics video but is scored by ominous Horror Movie Cues. And that doesnít stop it from featuring an actual aerobics number later on. Nearly every character surrounding Michael contributes to the off-kilter vibe. His brother-in-law is the standout oddball, a portmanteau of various nerd and effeminate clichťs you can imagine from this time period (itís sort of an unfortunate, unflattering reflection of the era, really). A kooky parapsychologist occasionally drops in to help Michael out, only to meet a skull-crushing end at the hands of the killer. Even the spirit of Michaelís ex-wife haunts the proceedings, and letís just say thereís a reason Death Spa carries the alternate title Witch Bitch. McCarthy and Cash form an unexpectedly fun duo, and I like to imagine they just wandered in from their own buddy-cop flick whenever they pop upóif not for Cashís untimely death (fuck cancer), Iíd petition HBO to reunite these two for a future season of True Detective.

Suffice it to say, Death Spa is a bonkers affair that doubles as a perfect time capsule for the 80sówhen future civilizations stumble upon the remnants of our culture, I want a copy of Death Spa to be right there alongside Thriller, Rocky IV, and footage of the Berlin Wall collapse. Thanks to MPI (via their recently resurrected Gorgon Video label), thatís actually feasible, as Death Spa has been lovingly (and perhaps impossibly) transferred to Blu-ray. The disc features a gorgeous high-def transfer that excellently captures Fischaís neon-soaked hues and garish violence, while the extras are headlined by a 50-minute retrospective chronicling the filmís production and legacy. Itís quite similar to the recent documentaries produced by Scream Factory, and itís further supplemented by a couple of trailers and a commentary featuring Fischa, producer Jamie Beardsley, and editor Michael Kewley. Itís a an auspicious restart for the Gorgon label, and hereís hoping it becomes a treasure trove for more offbeat, obscure horror; I do have to wonder if theyíll ever be able to top Death Spa, but the possibility certainly gets my blood pumping. Buy it!

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