Directed by: Michael Fischa
Cast: William Bumiller, Brenda Bakke, Merritt Butrick
The 1980s were lousy with gimmicky horror films. Death Spa technically didn’t see its straightto-video release in North America until 1990, but it just further proves how decades don’t culturally end until a couple years after the new one begins. The film, set in a health spa/gym, seemingly patroned only by attractive yuppies, has its fair share of ‘80s staples: DayGlo leotards, a heavy synth-noir musical score, neon-refracting glass brick, computer passwords that are neither case sensitive nor hidden by asterisks—not to mention, principal photography that took place in 1987. So for all intents and purposes, Death Spa is indeed an ‘80s movie.
By the end of the decade, referred to many as the “Decade of Horror,” the genre particular with slashers was largely moving away from the forthright, grittier helpings of the ‘70s and early ’80s and was becoming more stylized with pop sensibilities and an emphasis on aesthetic and set design, as well as maintaining a higher realization of
premise over actual kills (this didn’t always work as intended, but it provides for some great nostalgic fodder years later). It was a logical direction for the genre to move into, and it wasn’t a bad one either, except that many films suffered from style over substance. To give it credit, Death Spa at least tries to balance the two. It tries to be shlock, but cool schlock.
Laura Danvers (Brenda Bakke), a guest of the health spa, is using the sauna late one night when the temperature gets dangerously increased and toxic levels of chlorine fill the air. She doesn’t die, but she’s badly wounded and has to spend the rest of the film with comical eye patches over both eyes. Her boyfriend, Michael Evans (William Bumiller), is the owner of the high-tech health spa, and has recently suffered through the suicide of his wife, Catherine, the year before. His former brotherin-law—Catherine’s twin—is in charge of the gym’s state-of-theart computer system, and is the main suspect for the police. When several other guests get injured or murdered at the spa, suspicions increase, but the reasoning is even stranger than you think.
As a horror film, Death Spa delivers as a gore-fest for the most part, and still the kills are either incoherent or laughable—or both. A man gets stabbed in the throat and we never see how it happens, nor can we truly relish in the seemingly well-constructed practical effect because it’s shot as an extreme close-up. Another guy gets killed by a butterfly weight machine, and as someone who’s used this machine many times in the past, I’m still unsure of how this is possible in the fashion that it happens here. Another woman dies instantly after her hand gets mutilated inside of a blender (?).
The movie sticks to the health spa gimmick, and it’s not an inherently awful one, but becomes obvious that the writers quickly run out of ideas, so much so that they just start to stretch the premise to include tiles flying off of the shower walls, or mirrors spontaneously combusting and slicing a woman’s body into hundreds of pieces (albeit still the best gag in the film).
The gym’s selling point for customers is this highfalutin computer system, which acts as the central hub of operation and apparently/inexplicably functions all of these things—and is the size of my apartment. A member slides his or her card into a machine and it remembers the amount of weight they usually use. The computer is also used to monitor the saunas, the A/C units, the locker rooms, etc. Many of the deaths occur by something that has no electronic function, such as a diving board, which still strangely comes loose and “almost kills” an unsuspecting woman as she falls into a swimming pool (?). A tanning bed, which seems like a no-brainer for a murder weapon to fit the theme, is only threatened with, but never actually used.
What sets Death Spa apart from a lot of other ‘80s schlock are the mystery elements. There are several red herrings thrown into the mix, and while the conclusions aren’t totally unpredictable, there are some surprises here and there as well. Unfortunately, while it sets things up for some big twists, the filmmakers never quite find a purpose for them, and then the audience comes to the realization that those setups may just have been a result of awkward edits and wonky performances. Odd acting choices often imply an air of suspense, when really this unintentional evocation has more to do with poor scene structuring and sloppy directing.
Director Michael Fischa has a hard time with scene transitions and sound editing, which is odd considering he had 2 or 3 years after filming this project until its actual release. The movie is riddled with unfinished conversations and poorly spliced-together lines of dialogue, often o verlapping two separate voices for the same character. Many of the scenes have long fade-outs like a TV movie going to commercial (this is not a TV movie).
To the writers’ credit, they actually try to construct an engaging story surrounding this deadly health spa premise, even going as far as our protagonist consulting with a paranormal psychic to investigate the spa as well. And it almost works. I’m guessing that once they realized that the unexpectedly-intricate plot may actually be preventing the gimmick from reaching its full potential, there was already too much story there to upend and start from scratch, leaving the end result feeling more like two conflicting narratives rather than one cohesive story.
To the writers’ credit, they actually try to construct an engaging story surrounding this DEADLY health spa premise.
Nevertheless, there’s still a surprisingly well-rounded story at play, even if it gets lost along the way and the vision becomes muddled in the final act as it has a difficult time being proactive with any sort of action, not only stretching its way to its sub-90 minute runtime, but fumbling to the finish line. This film attempts to have its cake and eat it too. Despite having access to a creepy villain, Fischa loses track of our protagonist far too much in those last 15 minutes for the stakes to feel personal for Michael, aiming instead for a big finish with a plethora of collateral kills, when we would have rather them be spread out over the course of the movie instead, perhaps even at the expense of the actual story (yes, I said that). Ultimately, this is a film that warrants “so bad it’s good” status, even when there are moments where it’s just actually entertaining on an intrinsic level. Carried by a promising plot and truly mouthwatering ‘80s vibes and set design amidst vast levels of incompetence, Death Spa is nothing but enjoyable any way you slice it.