Among the cheesiest horror films of the Eighties, Death Spa strikes an endearingly kitsch note from the get-go as lightning hits the neon sign above the Starbody Health Spa so it reads: death spa. Ho-ho. All sweaty after an aerobics workout, sexy dancer Laura Danvers (Brenda Bakke) hits the steam room only to narrowly escape death by chemical burns that leave her temporarily blinded. Hard-nosed cops Sgt. Stone (Rosalind Cash) and Lt. Fletcher (Frank McCarthy) interrogate Laura’s boyfriend, Michael Evans (William Bumiller) who owns the spa. Michael suspects his onetime brother-in-law David Avery (Merritt Butrick) is in some way responsible since he controls their state-of-the-art computer system. It appears David blames Michael for the death of his twin sister, Catherine (Shari Shattuck) who set fire to herself after a miscarriage with the latter’s baby. A lot of buff body-builders and aerobics bunnies die in increasingly grisly and outrageous ways before the shocking supernatural truth comes to light.
If slasher movies of the Eighties were guilty of reducing the horror genre to an ongoing ritual of watching beautiful people die in elaborate agony then Death Spa might well mark the apotheosis of that mean-spirited trend. One could pen an intriguing essay charting the course of the Eighties obsession with physical fitness from the enthusiasm of Perfect (1983) and all those Jane Fonda workout videos to semi-satirical horror fare but that would be giving Death Spa more credit than it deserves. Filmed in 1987 but released two years later under the alternate title: Witch Bitch, strictly speaking this is not a slasher movie. Heck, it’s so half-assed and random it’s barely even a movie. Austrian born filmmaker Michael Fischa, who went on to make My Mom’s a Werewolf (1988) and a host of tongue-in-cheek DTV horror films, is only part responsible for the film’s strange, dream-like tone with his disorientating camerawork and flashy MTV-style editing for the confusing flashbacks to Catherine’s fiery death.
All credit to screenwriters Mitch Paradise (a television staple with episodes of Remington Steele, Hotel and Jake and the Fatman on his resume) and James Bartruff (his only credit aside from one episode of the sitcom What’s Happening Now!) for avoiding the predictable mad killer in a hockey mask routine for something wildly offbeat. However, the cockeyed combination of witchcraft, hi-tech mayhem, paranormal science, murder mystery, incest, implied necrophilia, possession and cross-dressing is just too elaborate for what is really just a smorgasboard of ridiculous freak deaths. The gloopy splatter effects are fairly impressive including faces melted off, a body-builder torn apart by an exercise machine, an exploding head, a man mauled by reanimated tuna (yes, really) and death by tanning bed, but only make it harder to accept that the Starbody Health Spa could stay open amidst all this mayhem. Perky, scantily-clad Chelsea Field makes an impression as a spa regular seemingly set-up to be the token ‘final girl’ till she loses an arm in a blender at the finale.
The sub-plot with manager Priscilla Wayne (Alexa Hamilton) and lawyer Tom (Robert Lipton) conspiring to wrest control of the spa away from Michael is pure daytime soap opera while you also get a hilarious ‘food flirting’ scene plus numerous musical interludes wherein, I kid you not, ‘the Death Spa Dancers’ perform embarrassing aerobics routines to Peter D. Kaye’s godawful dance score. As if the film weren’t camp enough already, the paranormal climax happens amidst a costume party wherein guests don’t seem to notice animated objects ripping people to shreds, luckless Laura gets molested again and down-on-his-luck Dawn of the Dead star Ken Foree appears dressed as a bare-chested genie. Despite an abundance of sweat-sheened dance routines and shower scene nudity involving Bakke, Field, soft-core fixture Tana McClure (daughter of beloved shite film staple Doug McClure) and future Fresh Prince of Bel Air star Karyn Parsons, Death Spa harbours a heady dose of homoerotic tension, particularly between snippy David and inscrutable Michael. The latter also indulges in some macho horseplay with Foree in scenes straight out of an aftershave commercial and at one point tells Tom he is wearing “the cutest shorts I’ve ever seen.” Sly satire on the homoerotic angst underlining man’s obsession with the body beautiful, or just screenwriters taking the piss? You decide. Closing dirge (“Killer Groove”) performed by Squirt Gun. Party on.
Anyone who watched Twin Peaks rip-off American Gothic back in the nineties knows that Brenda Bakke should have been a bigger star. At least we'll always have, erm, Death Spa.
27 Sep 2013
Dang it! I meant to mention Brenda Bakke was great in American Gothic. Awesome show. She also gave a performance above and beyond the call of duty in the Japanese giant robot flick Gunhed and made a pretty good Lana Turner in a cameo in LA Confidential.