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Friday, July 4, 2014

Death Spa

Death Spa
Michael Fisch
1989

The Star Body Heath Spa, a totally computerized gym, has been experiencing a rash of accidents and deaths that threaten to shut the whole place down. Michael (William Bumiller) the owner, is at wits end trying to keep the place together. Someone or something is trying to take his business away from him, and it may have something to do with his wife who died in a horrible blaze.

Death Spa is definitely the child of a post-Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) /Evil Dead 2 (1987) universe. It takes the irrational and dream-like atmosphere of those films and throws them on the screen virtually from frame one. The entirely computerized gym is presented in a way that makes zero sense. Why and how would every piece of gym equipment be controlled from a single keyboard? How many Jazzercise classes have highly choreographed dance numbers? Why would a gym have a huge alcohol soaked party on Halloween? Why do they keep mutant pike in the freezer?An unexpected benefit from having such an odd set-up is that it makes the revelation of the actual threat a legitimate surprise. Considering the two films I’ve noted as major influences the plot twist doesn’t seem to wholly come out of left field, but it still feels like an odd fit for the film.

The movie maintains a late 80’s neon and pastel aesthetic through much of it run time.  There are a number of over the top gore streaked moments throughout the story, and the film is actually pretty good at tossing in the occasional exploding hand or gout of blood without much warning. The third act dives into all-out chaos and brings a big dramatic climax that raises the energy of the film greatly.

The main players in Death Spa really aren’t much to watch. They plod through their parts with enough conviction to get through a scene, but they manage little beyond that. The most notable exceptions are Ken Foree as Marvin, one of the employees at the spa,  who manages to display a wonderful charisma even with the limited about of time he’s actually on screen. Things could have improved greatly if it had given him a more substantial part. The other two characters I found myself enjoying were the put upon detectives, Sgt. Stone (Rosalind Cash) and Lt. Fletcher (Frank McCarthy). Their cynical police routine seemed so at odds in a film that is perpetually at odds with itself, I found myself warming up to them. Especially Fletcher when he partakes of the Halloween party at the end.

Death Spa could have been just another horror film where we watch people picked off one at a time by an unknown assailant. Using only pure weirdness, the film almost manages to circumvent a plot that is both paper-thin and needlessly convoluted. It only ever really bogs down when dealing with a subplot about people looking to steal the spa out from under the owner. Death Spa  is breathlessly strange and all the better for it.

Gorgon Video has recently released a beautiful Blu-ray presentation that really shows off the pastel and neon color palette and some remarkably good ambient sound design. I highly recommend it.

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