Friday, May 27, 2016

Hell Spa

Mike Bowler

After a woman is murdered by a man in a black outfit, we arrive at a failing gym. The gym has recently been offered financial assistance by a Mr. Ex. (Ron Waldron aka Tim Abell). After signing on, everyone at the gym suddenly starts looking younger and fitter. People join the gym’s ‘Plan Ex’ to get in shape, but when they falter, Mr. Ex. shows up to extract punishment. Meanwhile a newspaper editor finds some of her employees have gone missing, the evidence puts her on Mr. Ex’s trail and she soon discovers that Ex and his associates are not what they appear to be.

Not to be confused with Death Spa (1989), Killer Workout (1987), Murder Rock (1984), or that bit in Nightmare City (1980), Hell Spa is another horror film that is set amongst people sweating in leotards. Hell Spa is not quite a slasher, it does showcase a few stalk and kill moments, but its real plot plays feels more like a riff on Videodrome (1983), with a shadowy organization manipulating people to its own ends by using weird technology. The plot is convoluted, more through accident than design, but it is refreshing to see a micro-budget feature try to do something more than make a typical slasher story.

The black spy from Spy vs. Spy checks his email.
 Probably the most surprising thing about Hell Spa is that it is well produced. Being shot-on-video makes it look cheap, but it’s competently blocked and I can actually hear what the actors are saying. The sets are often small and drab looking, but they don’t draw too much attention to themselves. I would go so far as to say the editing is actually quite good. Despite the overly long running time, the editing keeps the story feeling like it’s going somewhere. Shot-on-video films often meander quite a bit, so seeing something cut together tightly like this is a treat.

The original Axe Cop.
Where Hell Spa falls down is in the acting and dialogue. Despite all the good will generated from the production, many of the performances are amateurish to the point of distraction. The one notable exception is the villain, Mr. Ex. Ex is both interesting and weirdly charming. Tim Abell imbues him with a quiet menace that works well. There are also some really odd choices, such as the police detective who eats fruit with a battle axe. Also, you will never again be able to utter the phrase, “There’s something out there and it took my beans,” again without thinking of this film.

I’ve developed a real fascination with SOV films. They are almost always born of out passion and constantly offer surprises that are both good and bad. Hell Spa manages to delight and dismay in equal portions. It clocks in at an hour and fifty minutes, and could have easily been trimmed down to ninety, but it never drags enough to be a slog. Hell Spa is a weird little movie filled some big ideas on a very small budget. If you’re not a big fan of lots of gore and extraneous nudity, this might be a good jumping on point to get into SOV features.

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