The Chronicles of Horror Movie Night: Death Spa (1988)

Posted by Damon Swindall - August 11th 2011 @ 11:00 am

After starting in Washington D.C. nine years ago Horror Movie Night has expanded to include chapters in Austin, Dallas and Chicago. Horror’s Not Dead’s own Brian Kelley is the originator and programmer of this illustrious weekly Wednesday night tradition which features a “classic” horror film. Each week I will be reviewing/commenting on the past week’s selection so do your best to find the film, most of which have not made it past VHS, and follow along. Better yet, start your own chapter!

VHS cover for Death Spa

I will freely admit that a couple years ago I thought there existed only one wholly exercise-centric horror film. Aerobi-cide (aka Killer Workout) is a film of many great spandex clad wonders, burned boobies, and a lot of aerobics. It’s pure, delicious cheese and it was great to revisit it when we watched it a few weeks back for Horror Movie Night (you can read my write-up at this column’s old home if you so desire). Luckily I was wrong and the fitness themed slasher genre would not end there. We faithful HMN elite would be subjected to another fine entry by the name of Death Spa (aka Wtich Bitch)! This has less aerobics than it’s predecessor, a few less laughs, but some much better death scenes and a whole lot of wonderful.

Everything begins when there is an unusual accident in the steam showers of the Starbody Health Spa. Owner Michael Evans (William Bumiller) puts his Native American décor obsession aside rushes to the subsequently  injured woman at the hospital, because she is not just another member or employee but his relatively new girlfriend. This is just the beginning of the many strange occurrences at the health club. At first it’s believed that it could be due to a malfunction in the highly advanced automated gym’s computer, but that just doesn’t add up. A while back Michael’s wheelchair bound wife committed suicide by lighting herself on fire, and now it seems like she might be back for revenge, or it could just be her twin brother who is in charge of the computer system. All will be revealed at the gym’s big Mardi Gras Masquerade Party.

Sgt. Stone: “She was burned to unrecognizable ashes. Now does that suggest anything to you?”
Lt. Fletcher: “Yeah, I gotta tell my wife to start smoking in bed.”

This film plays really well into the standards of what you want in a late 80s slasher. Though this evidently wasn’t released until 1990, according to IMDb, the print on the VHS box list the copyright as 1988. Assuming that IMDb is right, and that’s a big “if”, as with many films around that time this probably sat on a shelf gathering dust while the studio waited for what they thought to be the right moment to release it unto the masses. What do they know? This is something that truly needs to be seen and those lucky ones out there who studied the horror wall at their local video store were rewarded.

Very romantic dinner

One aspect of reward falls on the lighter side of things. The parts of the film that make little to no sense or are so goddamn funny that you find yourself choking and coughing from laughing so hard. One such instance here involves Michael bringing his injured girlfriend home from the hospital. Laura (Brenda Bakke, who also co-stared with Bumiller in the Corman produced Vacation rip-off Last Resort) sustained some of the worst trauma from the intense steam to her eyes and has to be temporarily blinded by big white oval bandages while she heals. This is funny enough to look at, but then comes the romantic dinner. There is nothing quite as sexy, and hysterical, as watching a man sucking on a woman’s neck at a candlelit table while she sways her head around Stevie Wonder-like.

Then there is this gym of the future that Michael owns. Everything here is computer operated and automated – though it does seem to need a lot of maintenance from the control room. There houses this magnificent supercomputer which makes everything within Starbody Health Spa tick and looks like something that should be in charge of running a spaceship, like the bridge in the Enterprise on Star Trek. Every bit of it is the most advanced of technologies, just with the smallest screens possible. We’re talking some of the finest eight, ten and even twelve-inch screens, in both black and white and green text on a black background. Fancy. But this computer does everything and it works based on key cards that each of the gym members carry. If you want to workout on a machine, you slide your card and a friendly voice welcomes you and talks you through your weight, resistance and reps. Everything runs off these cards, the lockers won’t even open without one. Who needs silly combination locks?

The other big reward is in the gore department. When people meet their end in this movie it’s not just a bunch of off screen kills or people getting repeatedly stabbed – they go with style and jaw-dropping ridiculousness. The first death takes place on a butterfly press machine that goes rogue and begins increasing the weight so much that the poor schmuck using it ends up having his arms pulled back too far and his ribcage cracks outward through the skin. I’m not quite sure that would actually happen, his arms would probably just pop out at the shoulder, but it’s damn entertaining here. Other highlights include a long teased/foreshadowed blender incident at the juice bar, an exploding mirror, acid sprinklers and an attack by possessed frozen fish in a walk-in freezer! This is definitely one of the high points of the movie.

Who wears short shorts?

Somehow director Michael Fischa managed to also put together a pretty decent cast with many recognizable faces. The most popular and obvious cast member, at least for those of us horror geeks, is Ken Foree who is most famous as the badass Peter in Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. Here he has traded in his tactical gear for a mustache and some short shorts under a brightly colored, oversized jacket. Chelsea Field, who has been in a ton of things, plays one of the other gym members, Darla. To me she’ll always be Teela in the live action Masters of the Universe. She seems like the female sad sack of the gym. The only guy who has eyes for her is the comically out-of-shape British guy named Freddie. She tries to hit on one of the more toned members of the gym but her shoots her down by saying, “I’m Beta and you’re VHS.” If he’s trying to say he’s gay, that’s the best way I’ve ever heard! There are also appearances by Chad Hayes (now a writer of such things as the House of Wax remake but who also starred in the 80s BMX flick RAD) and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air’s own Karyn Parsons.

For those of you out there who like that sort of thing, and I know there are plenty, there are quite a few scenes of undressed ladies. There is even a very impressive shower scene featuring a group of gym members soaping up. Sure they are probably body doubles, but who cares? This fills the third quota for a successful 80s slasher after the cheese and great death scenes.

Catherine: “Now’s your chance, Michel. Come with me into the inferno. Let’s die together and live forever in hell.”

Many films of the time came out in different versions with alternate titles. Usually this was relegated to those in another country or it would let you know if it was the full version or some edited to hell quickie release. This movie actually gives you both titles in the opening! In the bold letters it says Witch Bitch, but soon after lightning strikes and changes the Starbody Health Spa sign to read, that’s right, Death Spa. It’s almost as if they planned it that way.

Sadly, there is no DVD release. I would love nothing more than for someone to come out and do a special edition of this film so I could have it cleaned up and packed with extras. Or even do a double feature disc with both Aerobi-cide and Death Spa. Two films to get you fit by fright. That’s even more of a pipedream since surely the rights are owned by two different companies. The real question is, is this movie worth the time and effort to track down on VHS through eBay or another online retailer? Yes, yes and yes! Quite hilarious at times and full of jaw-dropping death scenes make this a must-see.

Until next week – I’ll be renewing my gym membership.

Body Count: 14 (probably a bunch more in the fiery finale that we don’t see)
First Death: 25 minutes
Best Death Scene: Tie: Feasted on by Frozen Fish and Exploding Mirror
Number of Cow Skulls on Michael’s Walls: At least 4

Coming soon to Horror Movie Night (Chronicles are posted one week after screening):
-8/10/11: Hide and Go Shriek (1988)
-8/17/1: The Curse 2: The Bite (1988)
-8/24/11: The Boogens (1981)
-8/30/11: Killer Party (1986)

Killer frozen fish!

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