A blog exploring the sexy, shocking, surreal, and silly side of horror films.

April 29, 2010

Death Spa (Review)

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


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.

Except for Merritt Butrick who utters a scream almost on par with Troll 2's "Ohhhh myyyy god," the acting's decent. Even Dawn of the Dead's Ken Foree shows up in a bit part to lend some sincerity to the character ensemble. Surrounded by the silliness of the plot, the earnestness with which the actors commit to their roles without going into belabored attempts at melodrama makes me think of Death Spa as a kindergartner's crayon drawing. It's silly and messy and derivative, but because the kid wasn't shooting for high-art it manages to be endearing and kind of surprising. Death Spa is 80's cheese at its most charming.

Sometimes an asparagus is just a limp green penis.


The main reason for anyone to see Death Spa is all the sweaty T and A. There are long scenes that hang on shots of buff guys and tight women working out in the gym. There are even longer scenes of full-frontal nudity in a woman's shower, not to mention other shots of women in their bras and panties running around the gym's locker room unaware of their impeding doom.

"Arrgh, the censors promised me these would be water-soluble!"
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. 

Expect plenty of blood, sweat, and tears at 
The Starbody Health Spa. Heavy on the blood.


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.

Let the Right Remake In

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This article originally appeared in the December-January 2010 issue of the zine Scream Scene, but as we move closer to the release of the high-profile Nightmare on Elm Street remake, I thought I'd repost it to explain how I feel about horror remakes

As I settled in with a few beers to write an opinion article for this issue of Scream Scene, I learned that the American remake of the brilliant and beautiful Swedish vampire film Let the Right One In had just gone into production. Entitled Let Me In, the American remake of Let the Right One In moves the location from Sweden to America. According to the filmmakers, the movie will “forge a unique identity for Let Me In, placing it firmly in an American context.” In other words, they are going to dumb it down and play to the lowest common denominator as usual. Just look at what Rob Zombie did to Halloween.

I was so pissed off at the thought of what an American version of Let the Right One In might look like that I couldn’t bring myself to write anything that wasn’t a beer-fueled tirade. So, to take my mind off the infuriating number of horror remakes coming out of Hollywood, I went riffling through my DVD collection to find a good and original movie to watch. As a result, I came upon one of my favorite movies of all time: The Fly. David Cronenberg’s The Fly. The Fly remake.

It was then that I realized that, at my core, I am a blustering hypocrite when it comes to remakes. For all the spite I throw at horror remakes, some of my favorite sci-fi / horror films are remakes. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978), The Thing (1982), The Blob (1988), Night of the Living Dead (1990), Dawn of the Dead (2008)—I consider all of these films to be good or great movies. So what does this mean? Am I actually in favor of remakes?

Let’s be clear: I still don’t like the idea of remakes. Worse than sequels, remakes are often cash grabs that allow major studios to recycle ideas, plots, and characters with little originality or innovation. Often times, such as with the upcoming Hellraiser and Nightmare on Elm Street remakes, the original films still stand the test of time and don’t require a remake, reboot, or “reimagining.” Thankfully, when the remakes of high-caliber films turn out to suck, at least the original films are still accessible to the public. The same cannot be said for foreign-language films remade in North America. For example, Spanish-language horror film REC was remade into Quarantine in 2008. Quarantine’s characters, plot, pacing, and even sets were almost exactly the same as those in REC, yet the remake failed to replicate the original’s charm. Sony could have just released REC to the public if they weren’t afraid audiences would be turned off by subtitles. Therefore, not only does Quarantine get to make bank off the story and characters from the original film while assuming an American audience needs a “dumbed down” story, the original writers Jaume Balagueró, Luis Berdejo, and Paco Plaza remain virtual unknowns. REC was released by Sony several months after Quarantine hit DVD, but the REC DVD was released to little promotional fanfare.

I have a significant beef with remakes, yet I’ve come to realize that as much as I hate the idea of remakes it’s not fair to attack remakes themselves until they’re released. While the majority of remakes have been tepid and shallow, every remake has the potential to be another The Fly or The Thing. Despite every instinct I have otherwise, Let Me In may turn out to be an even more dazzling and beautiful take on the vampire genre than the original Let the Right One In.

Regardless, there are three things fans can do to offset the effect of terrible remakes.

1.) Don’t go see every horror remake that comes out. If you do, you help fuel the remake hype machine with your dollars. Even if you’re disappointed upon leaving the theatre, you’ve helped turn a shitty movie into “The #1 Movie in Canada” for a weekend. Wait to hear some word of mouth before you fork over your hard-earned cash.

2.) Support independent and foreign horror. At the same time as I caution you against indiscriminate consumption of horror remakes, do not be content with Hollywood’s attempt to sell you stuff you’ve seen before. If you want to take a risk, take a risk on something foreign and independent when you go to the video store. There are a host of great independent features and foreign films that deserve to be seen. Even if you don’t like the films, at least you’re rewarding originality

3.) See the originals. Whether you like or dislike a remake, take the time to seek out the original film. It may be old, it may be foreign, or it may be independent, but if a remake was intriguing enough to get your butt into the theatre or to get a DVD into your player, seek out the original film(s) .

In short, I’ve learned not to rage against specific remakes until I’ve seen them. I like too many horror remakes to say that all remakes suck.

April 24, 2010

The Rejuvenator (Review)

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The Rejuvenator (1988) 
Director: Brian Thomas Jones
The Rejuvenator (or Rejuvenatrix in some markets) is so very, very, very dumb. The characters are dumb. The writing is dumb. The effects are dumb. Triple stupidity. This is a disappointing fact considering that I remember the VHS cover from my youth and recall being intrigued by the image of the woman on the left and the waxen, melting mutant on the right. Now that I've seen it, I want the time back. The few decent monster effects this film can be proud of are completely torpedoed by some of the most annoying characters and ham-fisted acting I've ever seen. In fact, the acting is so bad I have awarded The Rejuvenator my coveted HAM-FIST AWARD.

We all get old and we all lose our beauty, but aging actress  Ruth Warren (Jessica Dublin) isn't going to take nature lying down. She hires research scientist Dr. Gregory Ashton (John MacKay) to develop a youth serum to make her young again -- and it works! Rejuvenated (and now played by Vivian Lanko), Warren and Ashton enter into an awkward romance. Everything seems great, but there's one tiny catch. If Warren is not administered increasingly higher and higher doses of the serum, she mutates into a hose-headed, rubber-fingered monster driven to consume human brains. Oh yeah, Warren neglected to find out how Dr. Ashton made his serum -- illegally and from the brains of dead or murdered junkies, of course! And Ashton neglected to tell Warren that the first and only test subject, a lab rat, turned into a horrible monster before melting into a disgusting puddle. Trivial details! Kids, that's what you get when your drugs aren't FDA approved.

After Warren goes on a killing spree, Ashton attempts to create a synthetic serum to feed her addiction. At the same time, Ashton's melodramatic rival, Dr. Germaine, tries to kill his research project. Academic politics meets goofy monsters in this stale attempt at gross-out horror.

Rating: 1 / 5 Rubber Monster Hands


Everything about this movie is ridiculous. While the gruesome transformation scenes could have been shocking, the acting is so ham-fisted that almost every scene evokes bored laughter. Check out the pure vomit of exposition in the first 10 minutes of the film. Be prepared for a boring 10 minutes.

Come on! People don't talk that boringly even in real life.

And is it just me or does Dr. Gregory look like the love child of Lorne Michaels (SNL) and Bradley Whitford (The West Wing)?

Ham-fisted acting and the questionable paternity of Dr. Gregory aside, the silliest part of this film is the "monster." While we do get some neat transformation sequences, the end result is a real mess of a creature design. Primarily, when all is said an done and the latex bladders have stopped pumping and the prosthetic skin has stopped ripping, Warren turns into a purple and brown freak with a head full of inexplicable tubes.

I guess people have done equally crazy things to look beautiful in real life.

Watching the actress run uncomfortably around the frame with a cumbersome and probably very heavy head appliance really sucks the energy out of any attempts at atmosphere or dread -- not that there's much of an attempt. Director Brian Thomas Jones seems quite content to stick the camera on a tripod and just film the characters talking or walking around the set. The best attempts to create atmosphere that I can think of is when the lights are turned down so you can't see what's happening on screen. Yawn.

I have to admit that the transformation sequences are interesting although hardly ground-breaking, but this movie has nothing else going for it. It's subtextual themes regarding beauty, addiction, and medical ethics are pretty shallow and, frankly, as tired and flat as the acting.

Maybe the film could get a botox injection in the form of a modern remake?

*80's ALERT*

The Rejuvenator features a cameo by real-life female rock/metal band Poison Dollys. In what is one of the more entertaining scenes of the film because of the music, Poison Dollys plays at a club where Warren goes to look for a bit of fun. Keep that hair big, ladies!

April 7, 2010

Jennifer's Body (Review)

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Jennifer's Body (2009) 
Director: Karyn Kusama

When critics were given the chance to sink their teeth into Jennifer's Body, directed by Karyn Kusama from a script by Diablo Cody, they didn't like how it tasted. While the film is profoundly flawed, its humourous edge and vaguely 1980's vibe is enough to push it ahead of a lot of failed horror films. Unfortunately, not enough to push it into the winner's circle.

Needy (Amanda Seyfried) is best friends with sexy cheerleader Jennifer (Megan Fox) despite the fact they occupy polar opposite ends of the high school social system. Although we get a sense very early on that it has always been Jennifer's needs and wants that dominated the relationship, Needy and Jennifer are nevertheless BFF (they even have necklaces to prove it). One night, Jennifer drags Needy to a local dive to see an indie band called Low Shoulder. During Low Shoulder's set, an inexplicably devastating fire engulfs the bar. Jennifer and Needy escape. Outside and suffering from shock, Jennifer gets into the van with Low Shoulder frontman Nikolai Wolf (Adam Brody) and disappears with the band. When she returns hours later, bloody and abused, she is not the same. Possessed by an evil spirit, Jennifer becomes the most literal embodiment of a man-eater. And she eventually sets her sights on Needy's boyfriend.

Rating: 2.5 / 5 Sexy Succubi


The real flaw of Jennifer's Body is that it's not a very scary film. It tires to ride the line between horror and comedy but never fully commits to either. The film is profoundly and completely without atmosphere. There is gore, however. Jennifer is compelled to seduce and eat the boys at her school, and we get to see some grotesque, mutilated corpses as a result. My favorite scene comes early on when she's about to tear a guy apart in the woods. A group of animals gather to watch the kill. When his body is found, a stray deer is nibbling at the leftovers of his corpse. For the most part, however, the real violence occurs off screen or behind curtains (literally). The film is more about using horror conventions to dramatize the inner conflicts, interpersonal conflicts, and sexual conflicts between these two young women. There's an interesting dynamic to be explored here, but the film sometimes feels hindered by its need to try and be scary. It just never fully commits to the horror (more on this later)

You've got red on you.


Obviously, this film was marketed around Megan Fox's body. Although the film has no explicit nudity, she wears a lot of tight, revealing clothes and completely vamps the hell out of her character. In fact, by refusing to show full-frontal nudity or overt sex, Jennifer's Body heightens its sexual tones by appealing to the imagination.

Although this film should be noted because Megan Fox proves that she can indeed act and convey emotion as well as be sexy, it's hard to escape the fact that her body is the real focus. The camera just makes love to her whenever she's on screen. The film also introduces a lesbian sexual tension between Jennifer and Needy. At the height of their inter-personal conflict, Needy's complicated sexual feelings for Jennifer come to the fore in an incredibly hot lesbian kissing scene. Handled by other directors, this scene would have been very exploitative, but Karyn Kusama's direction delivers a scene that is both erotic and fitting. The film is sure to titillate young boys and men, but keep in mind we're not dealing with a heavily erotic thriller by any means.

For one glorious moment, every prepubescent teen boy 
(and some of girls) stopped talking in the theatre.


In terms of visuals, Jennifer's Body is pretty standard stuff. There are moments intended to reference the ludicrously gross-out effects from the Evil Dead franchise (clearly an inspiration for the film as we see Needy has both an Evil Dead shirt and poster). In the end, however, nothing surreal occurs to torture the audience's perceptions.


The saving grace of Jennifer's Body is its comedic tone. The script by Diablo Cody is full of her now trademark "hipster" twists of phrase that we heard in Juno. Many people hate her writing style (in the same way people hate Joss Whedon's dialogue), but I appreciate that she's trying to do something new with language. I'm always open to people exploring the English language, even if it doesn't always succeed. In this film, Cody's script provides a number of laughs. Sometimes they come in form of outright quips ("They're showing Rocky Horror at the Bijou next Friday night" / "I don't like boxing movies") and other times in reinventions of common phrases ("You give me such a wetty" [instead of 'woody']). Not every line hits home, but enough do to keep the dialogue energetic (can any Final Destination film say the same?). The film's approach to its horror elements is also quite tongue-in-cheek. I don't think we're supposed to take it seriously when an emo indie band from the city turns out to be Satan worshipers, but it adds an element of fun and satire to the plot. Unfortunately, the sillier aspects of the film come at the expense of the film's horrific and sexy elements. Jennifer's Body simply tries to go in too many directions at once and therefore really goes nowhere. By the end of the film, the story feels like an entirely new movie (one I'd pay to see, mind you, and probably like better than Jennifer's Body itself). Jennifer's Body is neither a terrible movie nor a great movie. It occupies that shady gray area in between,  which means it will probably fade away in the minds of horror fans.

VHS Horrors

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Sometime in the 1980s, ABC's television news magazine 20/20 did a special report on VHS horror films and their supposed negative influence on children.

VCR Horrors
Uploaded by solvhs

While there is always reason for concern about the messages about violence and gender that children and adults consume in visual media, reports like these were and continue to be more about sensationalizing the issue, playing to the fear of parents, and creating a false sense of nostalgia for the good old days when things were better and more wholesome. To a lesser extent, the same thing is happening today with video games. The full extent of such cultural trends can be seen in what happened over 50 years ago with the debate over comic books that led to the death of horror comics and the creation of the comics code.

April 6, 2010

CRITTERS 2 -- Cover Criticism

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I wasn't impressed with the modern DVD art for Critters, so let's turn our attention now to the VHS art and modern DVD art for Critters 2 (review). Will they be classic, characterless, or criminal?


Verdict: CLASSIC!

Although this is technically the movie poster, the VHS box art with which I am familiar features the same ball of Krites, but the box art had less text and a red border. This box art for Critters 2 didn't stray too far from the design of the first film's. Instead of a giant Krite, we see the ball of Krites that appears near the end of the film. A striking visual, lovingly painted and detailed, this box art is one I remember from my youth. Although this image feels more static than its predecessor, it makes up for the static design with such an intriguing visual hook.


Verdict: CRIMINAL!

Wow, these Critters DVD covers really are abortions of Photoshop. This cover is the worst example of lazy digital DVD art I've ever seen. For one, it shamelessly steals the central image of the classic poster -- the ball of Krites -- and then brutally rapes it into submission with radial blur filters. At least the other Critters DVD covers use stock photos. After blurring the shit out of it, some lazy designer pasted it over a nondescript background and photoshopped in some fire that is WAY TOO BIG to be in scale with the stock-photo barn. TA-DA -- new covers for the Critters mass-market DVD release. This probably took, what, six minutes? Maybe four mintues if you don't count all the times the design intern sat there furrowing his or her brow over whether to click "Radial Blur" five or six times.

April 4, 2010

Scream Scene #4 (April 13)

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Did you know I publish Scream Scene, an independent horror zine, from Horror in the Hammer?

This issue features:
  • A retrospective on Full Moon Features
  • An interview with Steve Santini, the Dark Master of Escape
  • An Easter Horror movie spotlight
  • and Movie Reviews and lots of Independent Art!
Scream Scene #4 (April / May) will be on April 13th at our screening of Puppet Master III: Toulon's Revenge and then shortly thereafter at Crash Landing. Issues can also be ordered diectly through me at aaron@horrorinthehammer.com

Horror in the Hammer is a group of local artists, musicians, and promoters in the Hamilton, Ontario area. In addition to our other events and projects, such as our monthly Fright Night Theatre screenings and annual Hamilton Zombie Walk, we put out an independent horror zine focusing on horror from the fan's perspective. I edit and contribute to the zine. Shawn Hopkins of Evil Tiki Media is our art director.


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