Thursday, November 1, 2018

Census Bloodbath: Overshoot the extreme, max the envelope, and so on


Yesterday was Halloween, Halloween, Halloween, yesterday was Halloween, here's our crossover!  As if he needs any introduction, our friend Brennan Klein of Popcorn Culture, as well as many other places these days, shall be taking on the task of reviewing three wholesome, edifying 1950s sci-fi films of the kind we so often do around here, while I review three slasher films straight from the pit of moral decay called the 1980s.

Directed by Michael Fischa
Written by James Bartruff and Mitch Paradise
With William Bumiller (Michael), Brenda Bakke (Laura), Ken Foree (Marvin), Alexa Hamilton (Priscilla), Rosalind Cash (Sgt. Stone), Francis X. McCarthy (Lt. Fletcher), Merrick Butrick (David), and Shari Shattuck (Catherine)

Spoiler alert: moderate

Once again, we question our taskmaster, for Death Spa is not a slasher, and not even not-a-slasher in the sense that, for example, I object a little to A Nightmare On Elm Street calling itself a slasher.  It's a straight-up haunted house movie, Death Spa, albeit one that happens to feature an incredibly large body count.  Not The Burning large, mind you, nor even Friday the 13th Part Whatever large.  More like Carrie large, and Carrie style, and yet Carrie is not a movie I thought of during my viewing, despite the heavy showcase of telekinesis, and despite an awful lot of dawdling in the women's showers.  Perhaps it's because Death Spa is so many things, all rolled into one.  It's not a slasher, but it certainly has a slasher's bravado, and a slasher's appealing looseness, and much more besides.  It's kind of amazing, and while my mind was briefly cast back to 2015 when Brennan snuck Killer Party into the rotation (this being another pretty resolutely non-slasher kind of slasher, that also sucked), when the results are this fascinating, I won't complain.  The upshot is that between Death Spa and Slumber Party Massacre II, this year's Popcorn Culture/Kinemalogue crossover's given us the best slate of slashers (or slasher-like objects) so far, despite The Prowler being the worst of these since I, Madman.  So: thanks, B, you knew what you were doing.

Does it mean anything that the two good (hell, great) ones this year only take on a slasher's form, but then do something different with it, whilst The Prowler is entirely content to be little more than its basic elements of a sex murderer in a costume, young adult victims, and pointy things?  Maybe so, and one of the things Death Spa is, obviously enough, is a slasher (or "slasher") to arrive after Nightmare recharged the subgenre by essentially turning it into ghost-based horror with novel amounts of blood.  Curiously, it's also got some Colossus: The Forbin Project in it—betcha didn't see that coming—and Demon Seed, too, not to mention Rebecca and Wait Until Dark, and if we're doing Hitch and pseudo-Hitch, and it's a horror film, well, of course it's going to throw a pinch of Psycho into the mix for flavor.

But maybe above everything, it's Poltergeist In a Gym.

Well, not yet.

Specifically, the Starbody Health Spa, as we discover during a creative title drop that sees the camera gliding in through an L.A. night toward the fitness club, its neon sign blazing until a flash of lightning knocks half the letters out, leaving only D   EA TH  SPA to shine.  The first few minutes are concerned with letting us get our bearings in the nearly-empty facility, illuminated by moody red and teal nighttime lights, and, eventually, we see one of its last occupants, Laura, still dancing in the dark.  Afterward, she hits the sauna, where a burst of chlorine spits out of the steam vents, only slightly burning her, but, more importantly, blinding her.  We get a taste in this prologue of almost everything Death Spa has to offer, beyond its influences: incredibly striking solid color photography emphasizing deep blacks and weird neons; female nudity; and oddball kills (even if this one doesn't succeed) that use the setting itself as the murder weapon.

For this is but the first of many uncanny and increasingly-deadly events to befall the gym, and the weight of the crisis falls on Laura's boyfriend and the Starbody's owner, Michael Evans, who's barely found the strength in the last year to pick up the pieces in the aftermath of his wife Catherine's suicide, brought on by a pregnancy that ended in death for the child and paraplegia for the woman, and which she effected by dousing herself with gasoline before setting herself on fire in their yard.  It's not been a good year for Michael, and, honestly, things aren't looking up.

Is it possible that Catherine's back for revenge?  Well, it says so in the Amazon rental synopsis.  So yes.

These incidents naturally bring the police into the picture, and in the process some lame plot by Michael's business partners is uncovered, and even a parapsychologist gets involved, but none of this matters nearly as much as the Starbody's IT guy, or maybe its resident mad scientist, David Avery, introduced to the cops as Michael's "ex-brother-in-law," hence Catherine's brother-by-blood, a sibling deeply affected by his sister's loss, and fixed upon the idea that Michael drove her to her death—which means that the only reason Michael hasn't fired him yet is because David built the incredibly advanced computer that runs his gym.  (Keep going.  I know, but let's just ignore it.  This plot is more afraid of you than you are of it.)

And David's grudge is kind of a red herring, which is interesting, because Death Spa lets you know right away that David's skills, however elite, couldn't possibly (just for example) be turning bolts in a diving board, and he definitely didn't code up those tiles that start flying in the ladies' shower room.  But there's something about David that ain't right.

Death Spa is bizarre and wonderful, and the worst thing about it is that it probably wouldn't have been hard to make a genuine exploitation masterpiece out of it, since all the elements are there, first and foremost the remarkable look of it, thanks to director Michael Fischa and, especially, cinematographer Arledge Armenaki (astonishingly, the latter never had a career beyond the B-movies; less astonishingly, he started that career in the late 1970s).  Sometimes it's gritty and flatly overlit; sometimes it's plunging into sheets of black and purely expressionist color; sometimes it just lets blaring white negative space swallow up the subjects; sometimes, very occasionally, it's concerned with nothing but a genuinely beautiful vista with purple sunset skies seen from a hillside veranda, with a man and woman impeccably composed into the shot, one in the foreground, one in the background, thinking about different things and balanced by the circular geometry of a hot tub, an empty space where another person used to be.  Death Spa's a lot of stuff, like I said, and in a lot of ways, but it tends to work, and there's an Italy-meets-L.A. thing happening in Death Spa's best scenes where it's a lot more interested in atmosphere, searing neons, and the arrangement of human objects in the frame.

Not even necessarily dead objects: honestly, some of Death Spa's coolest material is in the first act, after Laura's been hurt, but before people start dying, wherein we get to know the leads, sure, but Fischa takes the time to (yeah, pad the movie, too) settle us into the Starbody Health Spa as a fully-functioning and rather pleasant community, complete with local characters, from the gay guy who gently rebuffs the straight woman hitting on him with the utterly-classic "I'm Beta, you're VHS," to the middle-aged dude who, despite apparently spending all his time in the gym, can barely bench the bar, yet is better described as a loveable dork than as a creep; all told, it's a community you like hanging out in.  The movie is ribboned with fantastic little interstitial scenes of this sort, where people dressed in boldly-colored spandex and legwarmers and tank tops all stretch and dance and push weights and eat kale amidst the pastel magnificence of Robert Schulenberg's production design, an aesthetic of kitsch that suggests it's starting to at least have an inkling what "kitsch" is.  Part of me wants to abandon caution and call Death Spa, if it's a slasher, the best-looking one they ever made.  Meanwhile, Peter Kaye's score is a little to the left of the usual synths—gloomier—and while it's not one for the ages, it's a solid accompaniment to the more macabre goings-on here at the Starbody.

Because, as the name implies, Death Spa does have a whole hell of lot of interest in the dead and the dying, too, with some gore sequences that remind you that, after the dawn of videotape, blood was back in fashion.  Death Spa's deaths are plentiful and varied, and amongst them is one of the best slasher (oh, hell, now I'm doing it) kills I've personally ever seen, an acid bath that slowly leaves its victim naught but exposed meat and bone in a pool of roiling blood, and still slowly twitching its life away.  The average is certainly less exemplary—there's one that's literally a woman writhing and pretending to die while blood pours out of the unplugged blender she's wearing on her hand—but Death Spa, in this case as in many others, reminds you that it couldn't have been nearly as cheap as most of its direct-to-video kin, with surprisingly good wire effects as the supernatural comes more directly into focus, and bodies get whipped around like dolls across the full length of rooms.  (It also explains Michael's extraordinary mansion, since it was probably one of its producers' mansions: a split-level, borderline-Escheresque wonderland that is probably the worst place on Earth that Michael could have brought his blinded girlfriend, a source of tension all by itself.)

Death Spa even has a leg up on most 80s lo-fi horror in terms of actors: for starters, one I've actually heard of and seen in real movies and in a pretty major role, namely Merrick Butrick, doubtless given the name David here in honor of his strongest brush with fame in Star Treks II and III.  (For those in the know, this is a clue as to Death Spa's production history—it was actually made in 1987, failed to get theatrical distribution, and that's how it wound up on the home video market—in other words, it significantly predated Butrick's tragic death from AIDS-related complications in the year of Death Spa's release.  Another clue is that the gore scenes, likely reinserted after sitting in somebody's house for two years, have a different film quality, ala My Bloody Valentine's restored cut.  A final clue is, well, the 1987 copyright notice; I'm not that good a film detective.)  And Butrick is, I'd say, easily the best in show: not every line he reads is gold—he has a big "no" that is, I'm afraid, kind of risible—but he's a better actor than the vast majority of people in movies like these, and somewhere in the middle of the film, he latches onto the film's only really frightening scene, in which he notes that since Laura is blind, there's no pressing need to hide the debate he's having on his face about whether or not he's going to jam a screwdriver through her skull.  But hardly anybody's bad here, and, as Michael, William Bumiller is given more to do than most horror protagonists, and gives more in return, spending most of the movie with a "Jesus Christ, what now?" look on his face that he can modulate into a certain brittle, damaged, yet still-broish charm.  Nor is it possible to overlook Shari Shattuck, a constant fixture in Michael's dreams and waking nightmares as Catherine, who gets to trill lines like "Die, and be with me together forever in hell," and really sell the shit out it.

And that's why it's a shame the script by James Bartruff and Mitch Paradise (uh-huh) is exactly the kind of slapdash nonsense you'd expect from the words "direct-to-video late-80s horror movie."  Well, maybe not exactly—it's certainly lively, well-paced, funny, and it knows how to deliver on its basic premise of "Death Spa, the Spa That Eats"—but it is almost laughably unconcerned with solid cause-and-effect, let alone solid computer programming or electrical engineering, and the question you're asking the entire time is, "If it's a ghost, and has always been a ghost, what about this scenario ever demanded a sci-fi master computer running the place?"  And there's something wrong in the climax—it's definitely partly the script, but I suspect it's likewise the editing, that doesn't quite master the geography of the gym and make it plain where certain events are in relationship to each other, making scenes of grisly murder feel like they take place on different planets, rather than in the same building, so little do they interact or affect one another.  And, all throughout, the film also has a distressing tendency to just drop incredibly heavy emotional exposition like bricks into its character scenes, the screenwriters evidently having not much actual humanoid interest in Michael's cautious relationship with Laura, his regret over Catherine's death, or his increasing certainty that Catherine's back and thinks they're still married.  Some of Death Spa's imperviousness to logic and allergy to character arcs is just pure genre (for example, you can't close down the gym, or there wouldn't be tons of people to massacre at its Mardi Gras party; you can't spend long scenes without tits or blood and expect the natural audience for this to not get bored).  And I recognize the attraction of prioritizing the prurient, like the fact that what's happening in David's head is more interesting to the writers than what's happening in Michael's; and yet it's somewhat in conflict with a director and an actor who do seem to care.

It is, of course, a stupid thing to complain about the lack of an Oscar-worthy grief drama hiding inside a movie that, when it starts to run out of reasonable ideas, takes recourse to killing a man with a reanimated dead fish inside a freezer.  And, personally, I would hardly trade the movie that kills the man with a reanimated dead fish for anything else in the world.

Killer: Catherine and [David, who's been possessed and femmed, this being the precise moment where David goes from being the vengeful maid in Rebecca to being Norman in Psycho, though you do feel bad for the poor guy]
Final Girl: N/A, Michael, I guess
Best Kill: Linda is the Incredible Melting Woman
Sign of the Times: A mullet and the big patches of shoulder hair unhidden by the lead's revealing tank tops are no obstacle to his being King Sexy of the gym
Scariest Moment: David comes by Michael's house and finds only Laura at home, and as friendly and conciliatory as she's trying to be, he keeps staring right at her, and playing with that screwdriver
Weirdest Moment: We learn that Michael Fischa thinks an asparagus stalk is an appropriately sexy subject of foodplay

Champion Dialogue: "The computer doesn't control tiles, for Christ's sake!" Runner-up: "Why shouldn't I be cheerful? My club is being sabotaged, my girlfriend is temporarily blinded, and my lawyer's wearing the cutest shorts I've ever seen."
Body Count: Conservatively speaking, fourteen, including some dead extras we see, but it could be closer to a hundred.  As for the "main" deaths, I will be honest, I learned very few of these people's names, so I'm mostly copying off Brennan here:
1. Catherine, in flashback, belatedly realizes that only she can prevent body fires
2. Robert is my butterfly, sugar, baby, when he gets his torso torn apart by the chest machine
3. Marcie is hit with a curtain rod or something (?) through the neck
4. Linda mellllts dude
5. Dr. Moray ain't afraid of no ghost, and pays the price
6. Jeffrey has his face smooshed, like your aunt would do, if your aunt were the She-Hulk
7. Tom's face becomes an exit wound, and right when he was about to get laid, too
8. The bartender's arm is chewed up by a blender; I guess the movie's got some Maximum Overdrive in its DNA, too
9. Lt. Fletcher is nipped in the carotid by a fish
10. Priscilla is torn to pieces by the shrapnel of an exploding mirror
11. Catherine, again, banished back to hell (well, maybe) when her [human host...]
12. [...David] is electrocuted by cross-circuiting something or other in the breaker box or whatever, I'm not an expert, but anyway, it's extremely rad
TL;DR: A beautiful piece of stylistic gamesmanship that also involves a massive amount of high-test gore along with a heaping helping of 1980s nostalgia porn, not to mention a fair serving of what amounts to 1980s actual porn.  No, you couldn't go too far wrong with watching Death Spa.


  1. Now you can't just go around cavalierly saying an 80's horror movie "isn't a slasher." Here's the secret, my friend: EVERY movie from the 80's is a slasher.
    I'm so glad you liked this one too! I'm going to have to try to outdo myself next year and I'm worried that might not be possible.

    1. Hey, I'm back from South Carolina now!

      "EVERY movie from the 80's is a slasher."

      That speaks to a deeper truth.

      As for next year, not to tell you what to do... but there are the deep reserves of Major Arcana left to get to. And honestly, other than the Halloween franchise, which I'm up on (82% up on, anyway, never seen either 6 or Resurrection), they're pretty big blindspots for me. For example, I've never actually seen a movie where *Jason* Voorhees kills someone.

    2. Actually, I might've seen The Curse of Michael Myers. I forget whether I finished the ol' Thorn Trilogy.

    3. Forgetting Part 6 is the best course of action, honestly.

      And no Jason? I've got my work cut out for me still, then. *rubs hands together*