Monday, January 24, 2011

Death Spa (Michael Fischa, 1988)

Even though your average person can probably afford to jump around in skintight clothing in the privacy of their own home, the desire to have others gauge the gradual remolding of your soon to be taut physique in a public setting remains as strong as ever. Whoa, wait a minute, glancing over the content of the semi-coherent sentence you just scribbled, it sounds like your about to start typing a bunch of words that may or may not pertain to a film that takes place in the dewier than normal world of physical fitness. Nicely done, my highly perceptive, chromosome-filled friend, you're absolutely right. The genitals are packed tight, the legwarmers have been laundered to perfection, the thongs are ready to be forcibly excavated from their rectal prisons at any given moment, and an armada of saucy headbands await to be bombarded with the saltiest sweat you can throw at them, it's time once again to combine rigorous exercise with grisly murder. Whose turn is it now to haphazardly smash the two unrelated activities together, you ask? Why it's filmmaker Michael Fischa (My Mom's a Werewolf) and his cagey team of writers, Mitch Paradise and James Bartruff, of course. An electrical storm is wreaking havoc in the sky above the Starbody Health Spa, a computerized health club that is practically crying out for a faceless killer with no morals whatsoever. A bolt of lightning zaps its neon sign, which shorts out most of the letters. All that's left is the 'd' in starbody, the 'ea' and 'th' in health, and the word "spa" manages to escape the storm with its grammatical integrity intact. (Word puzzle enthusiasts are already way ahead of me.) In an eerie twist, the sign now reads "Death Spa." Yeah, that's right, the new name of the spa is the same as the title of the movie we are watching. How freaky is that? (You know an exercise-based horror film is doing something right when the unveiling its title causes my inner half-wit to get all in a tizzy.)

Is Death Spa able to sustain the momentum it achieved with its stunning opening? You better believe it. However, I must say, I did have my doubts. The idea of watching yet another shadowy assailant slaughter people after they're done performing aerobics was not something I was looking forward to. I don't care how many firm crotches you shove in my face. That doubt simply melted away, much like the skin of the film's many victims, the moment Mr. Fischa tricks us into thinking we're watching something we're not.

Leading us into the spacious spa (fluid camera work interspersed with sinister-sounding synthesizer flourishes), the director gives us the impression that we are looking through the eyes of a deranged killer. But what get instead is the first of many sly, Ken Foree-related misdirections.

What the patrons of the Starbody Health Spa should be fearing is the spa itself. Whether it be scalding sauna steam, loose diving board screws, or shower tiles masquerading as deadly projectiles, there is definitely something iffy going on at this place. Owner Michael Evans (William Bumiller), still shaken by the recent suicide of his wife Catherine (Shari Shattuck), is concerned that his current ladyfriend Laura (Brenda Bakke) is going down the same road that his paraplegic, self-immolating spouse did when her eyes get burned by low grade chlorine vapor while sprawling seductively in the spa's state-of-the-art sauna. To make matters worse, while detectives (Francis X. McCarthy and Rosalind Cash) are investigating the sauna incident, a woman in an extremely tight one-piece swimsuit takes an awkward tumble off a faulty diving board. Oh, and shortly after that, a musclebound fella nearly gets torn to pieces by a yellow weight machine.

The bulk of the suspicion for these "accidents" is placed squarely on the delicate shoulders of Michael's former brother-in-law David (Merritt Butrick), the spa's resident computer expert. Why, you ask, does a health spa have a computer expert? Well, you see, everything at Starbody Health Spa is run by a kind of super computer, one that takes up an entire room, and David, it seems, is the only one who knows how to operate the complex behemoth.

As you would expect, Michael wants to shutdown the spa's computer–you know, until they can figure out what's causing all these "accidents." The tech-savvy David thinks turning it off won't make a difference since the computer doesn't control diving board screws or shower tiles. On the other hand, Michael's lawyer Tom (Robert Lipton) and Priscilla (Alexa Hamilton), the spa's attractive manager, definitely want to keep it on, as making tons of money seems to be their primary concern.

Did I mention that Michael is having these vivid nightmares that involve his wheelchair-bound wife setting herself on fire and thinks feeding his temporally blind girlfriend asparagus is the epitome of eroticism? No? Well, he is and he does.

While containing numerous attempts to mislead the audience, a couple of workout montages, one shower scene, and a bizarre moment where one heterosexual man compliments another heterosexual man on the cuteness of his shorts, it was the film's supernatural elements that separated Death Spa from the overcrowded spa-set slasher heard. Also, the gore had an explosive quality about it that was fresh and exciting. What I mean is the blood seems to spew rather than ooze, and, on some strange level, I appreciated that. In addition, never before have I seen a man get his throat torn out by a frozen fish moments after he failed to save a female bartender from having her hand shredded by a homicidal blender.

The film, on the whole, had a slightly off quality about it that I found oddly appealing. You know what I mean, there was just something wonky about its aura that made me want to cancel my non-existent health spa membership. Don't get me wrong, the film is as well-made as a movie called "Death Spa" can be, the synthesizer score (Peter Kaye) was top-notch and production design (Robert Schulenberg) was superb. I just felt a deep sense of uneasiness as I watched the melting flesh unfold.

In terms of wearing a leotard in a manner worthy of a million excessively worded sonnets, I think I'm going to have to nominate the gorgeous Chelsea Shield as the gal who did the acclaimed garment the most proud (she also sports an understated side ponytail at one point). Oh, sure, her dialogue was sparse, and she doesn't do a single jumping jack during the entire movie, but the whimsical spin she engages in as she impishly navigates the spongy floor of the spa's weight room was a pure joy to revel in.

The so-called "Chelsea Field Death Spa Spandex Spin" (I know, as far as made-up titles go, it needs a little work) is the stuff of snugly attired legend in my mind. The way the dingy spa lighting bounced off the white spandex pressing tightly against her robust thighs was bewitching. And I wasn't the only one who thought Chelsea was the cats pajamas, a weight lifter says to her, after she's completed her famous spandex spin, "I'm Beta, you're VHS." Which I think is a compliment. (Okay, the more I think about it, and believe me, I've thought about it, the more I think that guy was insulting Darla.) Having to deal with defective diving boards, lethal shower tiles, and videocassette-based put-downs, I'm surprised Darla stuck around as long as she did.

Acting wise, I'd have to say the vastly underrated Brenda Bakke and her deceptively brilliant turn as Michael's wounded girlfriend was the film's strongest performance. Her multifaceted turn was a wonder to behold, as she repeatedly navigated the realm that divides campy horror acting from its more highfalutin cousin with a breathtaking ease. Boasting the kind of legs that could destroy entire planets, Brenda exposes her juicy stems with a profound recklessness at the beginning and end of the film. However, it's when her eyes are bandaged, that Brenda's true talent comes screaming to the forefront. Her best scene is when Merritt Butrick pops by to menace her. It's the sort of acting you see win awards and junk, as it contains a hidden depth. In fact, she's so awesome in the middle section of Death Spa, that I thought they (the producers) had replaced her with a different actress after her character's toxic sauna ordeal.

There's an extended shower scene included to satisfy those who receive pleasure from the sight of naked women bathing while standing in an upright position. Personally, I was appalled by this sequence, but somehow managed to enjoy it from an anthropological point-of-view. You see, the problem with nudity is that it disorientates the viewer. The brain can't focus on his or her favourite body part when clothing is totally removed from the equation. And when all you're left with is an ill-defined slab of meat, future trouser wetness is in no way guaranteed. Stop playing with your rock hard nipples and put a fucking bra on!

With Chelsea Field dominating the proceedings with her immense beauty and Brenda Bakke uttering dialogue like a some kind of leggy acting machine who, for all intents and purposes, could be a ravenous hosebeast hellbent on world destruction, you'd think there wouldn't be much room for anyone else to move as a fry cook, I mean, as a Death Spa notable. If you think that, your brain must not work good.

While they may not shine as bright as the Field-Bakke combo did in this flick, you can't knock Karen Michaels as the spa's bumble bee costumed bar tender; Alexa Hamilton and her pink curve hugging power dress; Tané McClure (who delivers groceries to the recently maimed in white leather); Cindi Dietrich as Linda, a flirty spa patron (sporting the kind of boots you might see Jeana Tomasina wear in a ZZ Top video); Karyn Parsons (Fresh Prince of Bel-Air) as the flirty spa patron's best friend (her television static inspired dress was truly to die for); Vanessa Bell Calloway (rocking a minimalist bikini like nobody's business); and the rainbow pantied ladies of the Starbody Health Spa change room for trying.

You'll notice that I mentioned one piece of clothing each when listing all the women who were not named Field or Bakke. Well, that's because I was so impressed with wardrobe designer Katherine Sparks, that I felt I the need to highlight some of her outstanding work. Unlike Stacey McFarland, who was the chief leotard wrangler for Killer Workout (a.k.a. Aerobicide), Miss Sparks' take on spandex and swimwear was much more practical. Without sacrificing style or colour, she employs kneepads, colour blocking, harlequin clown costumes, and a ton of mismatched garments to create an authentic, disorganized quality. The implementation of these stylistic choices have lead me to believe that Katherine was trying convey the physical and economic hardship of the spa patrons. Which, you gotta admit, is not something most aerobics-based horror movies usually convey. Anyway, Death Spa is yet another fine addition to the aerobicspolitation sub-genre.

video uploaded by Warwolf2008

You can check out Chelsea's spin firsthand in a fan-made music video for the Crystal Castles' song "Courtship Dating" (watch Chelsea twirl at around the 45 second mark), and you can also view the Japanese opening titles, and other Death Spa-related clips, over at Scandy Tangerine Man's exploitation friendly YouTube channel.


  1. I so want to bathe in this movie's dirty water now.

    I'm thinking for a future review you need to evaluate the John Travolta masterpiece, The Experts. I recently re-watched it (a first since 1990) on netflix instant... And it's absurdity and tackiness would find a good home here along with Death Spa with a review!

  2. Defective diving boards?... Lethal shower tiles?... It sounds like the writers for this one borrowed a few pages from "The Anarchist's Joke Book". ;)

    You have to love a movie that has to include its title as part of the storyline ("Motel Hello" minus the last "o" equals?...).

    Speaking of "future reviews", I have one for you, if you're interested. It's a comedy from 1984 entitled "Second Time Lucky" starring Diane Franklin. I've only seen parts of it, but I think you'll have a field day evaluating this movie.

  3. AEROBICIDE meets CHOPPING MALL with a little dash of THIS HOUSE POSSESSED? How can I resist? Sign me up for a lifetime membership!

    You talked about the schore, but one thing you didn't mention was the workout music selection. Tell me there's 80s power rock to rival KILLER WORKOUT'S elusive and awesome soundtrack, and I'll beggar the church's coffers for a copy!

  4. Cinema Du Meep: The Experts is a masterpiece?!? I did not know that. ;)

    Anyway, yeah, I'll check it out.

    Matt: I completely forgot that Motel Hell employs the same "title as part of the storyline" technique as Death Spa.

    You've only seen parts of it?!? Now that's an endorsement. Just kidding. You had me at Diane Franklin.

    Let me write down the title: "Second. Time. Lucky." Done.

    The Vicar of VHS: Technology run amuck, exploding heads, yeah, there is a bit of a Chopping Mall vibe going on in the film. Good call.

    The reason I didn't mention any of the films totally awesome '80s power rock was because there wasn't any. :(

    Actually, there is one song that fits the bill that's featured during the end credits, but that's it.

  5. I much prefer KILLER WORKOUT, but DEATH SPA certainly brings the spandexitude (with hairspray shadings). There is also a super obscure movie called HELL SPA, which is a direct to video ripoff of DEATH SPA. I have a vague memory of watching a deadly spa movie on TV, and I think it may be this one, or maybe some episode of a shitty TV show (or great TV show, now that I think of it). If I ever get a hold of a copy I'll let you know.

    My word verification is "pestio", which also happens to be the name of an Italian chef who doubled as a magician superhero. Busy dude.

  6. Killer Workout is definitely more flexible than Death Spa.

    My Finnish made bike is a Hell Spa, except it's spelled "Helspa."

    Anyway, Hell Spa, eh? Sounds super obscure (10 whole people have voted for it on IMDb).

    Very busy, especially the whole being Italian part.

    I briefly thought of you as I lovingly cradled a copy of Turkish Stars Wars in my arms at my local video joint earlier this evening.

  7. Hellz yeah! Death Spa is da bomb as we say in the hood. I met Ken Foree in a bar at Horrorfind year and eagerly told him of my love for Death Spa. He was all like "Get the fk outta here with Death Spa." Dick.

    Just started checking out the blog. Digging it so far.


  8. I'm glad you're digging it, d. Thanks for dropping by,