• Gabe Powers

Death Spa Blu-ray Review (originally published 2014)

Feature

The new fitness club in town has everything a health nut could ever want – a variety of workout machines, classes taught by friendly (and frisky) instructors, and a state-of-the-art computer control system for maximum client comfort. Unfortunately, it's also possessed by the evil spirit of the owner's dead wife and, before long, every dumbbell, leg press, and rowing machine becomes a deadly weapon for her to enact bloody vengeance on the club's beautiful members. (From MPI and Gorgon’s official synopsis)



Michael Fischa’s Death Spa is a master’s course in crafting a culturally relevant exploitations film in the mid-late 1980s (it was filmed in ’85-’86, but not released in ’88-’89), which is to say that everything about it is perfectly and completely culturally irrelevant in the year 2014 (edit: it’s still irrelevant in 2019). It’s a beautiful time capsule, jam-packed with antiquity that our children will someday regard with nostalgia, like big hair, Neo-Pop, pastel-painted sets, and high-waisted one-piece bathing suits stretched over neon spandex. It is so thoroughly entrenched in the era that an incidental character actually turns down unwelcome sexual advances by saying “I’m Beta, you’re VHS.” The lack of a rabid cult surrounding Death Spa (unfortunately titled Witch Bitch in foreign territories) is inexcusable. It’s steeped in the camp appeal of a bygone era, bursting with high-concept silliness, dripping in gratuitous violence/T&A, and – most important to any long-term appeal – it’s actually very entertaining. Despite every advantage, it disappeared into obscurity after a mediocre release. It never saw a US or UK DVD release and is seldom mentioned in fan-based genre literature (edit: it didn’t even have a Wikipedia page until after this Blu-ray release).


Perhaps the lack of fanfare has something to do with Death Spa not holding a monopoly on spa-based horror. It doesn’t even feature the best exercise equipment-themed death scene (that would be a tie between The Toxic Avenger’s weight-lifting machine head crush and Nightmare on Elm Street 4’s roach motel kill), but what Fischa and co-writers James Bartruff & Mitch Paradise lack in novelty, they more than make-up for in quantity of oddball choices. Theoretically, a movie entitle Death Spa could’ve chosen from any one of a number plotlines, each with their own subgenre tropes, but the filmmakers opted instead to simmer them all together in one big, weird stew of conventions. It begins like a slasher/police procedural after a typically mismatched pair of cops (Rosalind Cash and Francis X. McCarthy) dispatched to investigate a series of near-fatal accidents at the spa. Soon after, the story shifts into science fiction mode, when it is revealed that the spa is run almost entirely by futuristic computers. These are maintained by a snotty and vindictive, self-described hacker (Merritt Butrick, best known for his role as Captain Kirk’s son in the original crew Star Trek movies), who becomes a key suspect. As the bodies begin to pile up, it becomes clear that the corrupt computer system isn’t causing all the mayhem alone (“You can’t blame the computer for tiles flying off shower walls! The computer doesn’t control the tiles!”), leading into a series of haunted house clichés, like vibrating walls, the levitation of deadly objects, and, eventually, possession – a development that unravels a number of familiar images. The main protagonist, Michael (William Bumiller), even hires a paranormal investigator (Joseph Whipp), who is, of course, killed when he gets too close to the truth. Each of these tropes pass by too quickly to fully absorb, but it is the conceptual mélange, coupled with the fact that none of these elements are ever entirely abandoned, that makes Death Spa so special.



Fischa’s no slouch as a technical director, either. He delivers the horror scenes with a standard period flair and makes surprisingly good use of expositional scenes. Beneath the film’s simple goals are some surprisingly surreal images. There’s real technical artistry in the abstractly-lit sets, expressionistic camera angles, and a series of incredibly evocative dream sequences that become increasingly more difficult to differentiate from the real world scenes. A more cynical person might say that the hallucinatory aspects are a symptom of bad editing and/or a stylistic necessity born out of limited resources, but there are too many deliberately interesting visual components at play to dismiss the good along with the bad. Besides, so much of that ‘bad’ is bestowed with a wink and a nod that I can’t imagine anyone with any affection for this type of film resenting it. The only considerably error Fischa makes is to waste the considerable talents of Ken Foree in an incidental role.


The gore is pretty tame by modern standards, I suppose, but were gruesome enough for the 1988 MPAA that the filmmakers struggled to secure an R-rating. The mayhem includes, but is not limited to: a nautilus machine squeezing a man’s ribs out of his chest, acid-spraying ceiling sprinklers that reduce a woman into a still living pile of goo, telekinetic ghost powers reducing a man’s hand to a blood-spewing stump, a possessed blender that grinds up a different sap’s hand into a froth. It all culminates in a fiery, Carrie-inspired climax that should satisfy even the most hardened gorehound. This Blu-ray features the unrated, uncensored version, though this isn’t unexpected, because Death Spa was available unrated on VHS for years.



Video

As I mentioned in the feature section of this review, Death Spa never had a North American or British DVD release. The only non-bootleg, digital media sources available, as far as I know, are German and Dutch barebones DVDs. The German disc, from cult distributor Dragon Entertainment, was cropped to 1.33:1, muddy, and brimming with interlacing effects. I have not seen the Dutch release, but assume it was more of the same. This Blu-ray release comes from VHS era B-horror titan Gorgon Video (their second, following 2008’s Faces of Death disc), who, in conjunction with MPI, will be reintroducing their brand to the market in the coming year. The upgrade from DVD to Blu-ray is pretty astronomical, but not unexpected, given Gorgon’s 2K restoration of the original negative. The material shows its age in terms of steady (sometimes uneven) grain levels and a number of minor print damage artefacts, but there are very few compression issues. Fischa and cinematographer Arledge Armenaki embrace the MTV aesthetics of late ‘80s genre filmmaking, specifically soft, smoke-filled pastel sets that are saturated in neon lights. The hypercolor soup comes to a boil during the punched-up climax, but percolates quite vividly even throughout scenes of everyday life. Some of the brightest hues exhibit slight blocking, especially the pinks, lavenders, and reds that line some of the softer backgrounds. Details are often shrouded by diffused light sources and the general darkness of a number of scenes, but substantially sharper than those of the DVD counterpart. The difference is most obvious in the crisp close-up textures and the fact that you can actually make out any detail during the most prevalently dark sequences (it is arguable that the entire transfer leans a bit too hard on the black levels).



Audio

Death Spa’s original stereo soundtrack has also been restored and is presented here in DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0. Basic ambience and incidental effects are unremarkable, but the horror and sci-fi-themed scenes feature an effective mix of natural and supernatural noises. The coolest of these are the static-driven flame sounds that accompany some of the possession scenes and the hum and buzz of the spa’s computer’s main hub station. The dialogue tracks are clear and consistent in terms of volume levels. There are no notable skips in sound, but the lip-sync is slightly off-kilter a few times (this could easily be a simple ADR issue). Peter Kaye’s occasionally avant garde synthesizer soundtrack sounds especially nice and includes quite a bit of depth and punchy (though not discrete) LFE support. Overall, the music might be a bit too loud, especially in scenes when it vaguely drowns out the more incidental effects, but its easy to see why the track’s designers would get a little carried away, given the clarity of the tracks.



Extras

  • Commentary with Fischa, producer Jamie Beardsley, and editor Michael Kewley – This friendly, amusing commentary is more or less moderated by Beardsley. It’s a bit unfocused, thanks in large part to the fact that the participants haven’t seen the film or each other in some time, but what it sometimes lacks in content and consistency, it makes up for in charm.

  • An Exercise in Terror: The Making of Death Spa (51:00, HD) – This comprehensive retrospective documentary with many members of the cast and crew that runs the gamut of the feature production process (writing, casting, production design, cinematography, Merritt Butrick’s sudden and tragic death after he contracted AIDS, MPAA troubles, musical scoring, and release). It includes a number of behind-the-scenes stills, some brief on-set video footage, and is very well-paced for type.

  • Theatrical trailer

  • Home video trailer



Overall

Death Spa is an unusually well-made slice of exploitation fun that has the potential to crossover from a ‘80s horror rarity to a fully-fledged cult film. It’s not going to change the world, but it is an absolute blast. Genre fans should also be welcoming the return of Gorgon Video, who has done a great job restoring the original source materials and creating new supplemental features. This Blu-ray includes a vibrant new transfer, an impressive DTS-HD MA soundtrack, a charming group commentary track, and a well-produced retrospective documentary. Also, first-time viewers should keep their eyes peeled for the feature film debut of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air’s Karyn Parsons.


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