Death Spa (1988)
Director: Michael Fischa
Death Spa is far better than it has any right to be even though it rips off far better movies in the genre. I chose Death Spa for review purely based on its delightfully over-the-top VHS art, but it turned out to be the kind of movie I hope for when I review these cheesy 1980's horror films. It's a movie with a through-and-through cheesy concept that somehow manage to rise above its technical and narrative limitations to deliver something surprisingly entertaining.
The Starbody Health Spa is one of the hottest and hippest health spas around, attracting all the hard-bodied boys and girls to its health bar, saunas, synchronized dance classes, swimming facilities, full-frontal female showers, and annual Mardi Gras costume party! Since his wife committed suicide by setting herself on fire, the spa owner, Michael (William Bumiller), has gone all out to make Starbody the best Health Spa money can by. He even goes so far as to employ his dead wife's spiteful brother David (Merritt Butrick) as a computer programmer to create a fully automated gym computer system. After Michael's new girlfriend is gassed and blinded by chlorine in a freak steam room accident, more unusual accidents and deaths start to occur. Are the deaths the result of a glitch in the computer system or are they murders perpetrated by David? Maybe it's corporate sabotage or the ghostly work of Michael's vengeful dead wife? Actually, it's all of these things put together. Rest assured, the jumbled mess of a plot does eventually unravel itself after a number of nude or semi-nude women are killed in mysterious and increasingly gory circumstances deep within the dark confines of the STARBODY HEALTH SPA, or as its neon sign declares after some of its lights burn out, the STARBODY HEALTH SPA
Rating: 3 / 5 Blind Sunglasses
IS IT SILLY?
Death Spa is not a serious horror film, but it's not an intentional comedy either. Although the characters play it straight, the events are so over-the-top, and the setting is so ridiculous (and by today's standards coated in so much 80's cheese it could be a Velveeta commercial) that the film manages to achieve some kind of weirdly motivating energy that keeps rolling through the film's boring filler scenes. The downside of the film's silliness is its convoluted plot. The narrative is a mess of threads in an attempt to copy other movies. Many have mentioned that Death Spa is a ripoff of Killer Workout, but there's also elements of Carrie, Psycho, and even a slight hint of Electric Dreams in here. As I've said, however, once you push past the filler, the tangle of thread manages to adhere into an appealing balance of straight-faced ridiculousness and unintentional 1980s oddities (see the excessive number of choreographed dance sequences).
We interrupt Death Spa with a scene from Flashdance.
Sometimes an asparagus is just a limp green penis.
IS IT SEXY?
"Arrgh, the censors promised me these would be water-soluble!"IS IT SHOCKING?
Well, Booger, there's some of that too. Death Spa hails from the time when women went for a more natural look below the belt and there wasn't this modern (and almost pathological) obsession with shaving and waxing.
Death Spa comes out of the gate with an impressive number of well-executed and surprisingly gory murders. Not all the effects succeed, but most are quite shocking if not in their brutal quality then in their unexpectedness. In one of my favorite scenes, a character has a run-in with the film's villain in which his hand blows up inexplicably before arcing a gush of blood across the screen. A number of the deaths are due to some form of burning (which is thematically integral to the story), but others are offed in typical slasher movie fashion -- impaled, severed, or maimed by everyday objects.
IS IT SURREAL?
Death Spa is no Eraserhead, but has a number of inventive and bizarre deaths that might leave you thinking, "Did they just do that?". For example, one character is killed when a frozen fish comes back to life and clamps down on his jugular. Another characters is blown to jig-saw pieces by a violently erupting mirror. The film also makes extensive use surreal roaming camera and POV shots. In one of the most interesting early scenes, the camera appears to be static (to the point you forget that you're looking at the scene through the camera's lens). Then, without cutting, the camera starts to move and follow the characters, thrusting the audience into a sudden POV mode.
The film is also a major tease. There are more build-ups to terrifying moments that never happen than there are terrifying moments. For some reason, I fell for this bait and switch every time. You can't be sure what is real because the director is uncommonly good at setting up expectations and playing against them. All the red-herrings and misdirection starts to feel like a cheap attempt to pad the running time, but for most of the film it's fun to know you can't really trust what's going on. The convoluted plot doesn't help, but on a visual level you can't trust what you're seeing, and this adds a needed level of uncertainty.
So, in the end, Death Spa exceeded my low expectations. Unlike other low-rent bore-fests from the same year, such as The Rejuvenator (review), Death Spa manages to make me forgive its hackneyed script, ridiculous plot, and unhelpful running-time by offering solid visual directing, visually interesting sets, satisfying carnage, constant nudity, and some surprising twists and turns. It's 80's cheese, for sure, but worth seeing on a night in when you're looking for something garish and gory.