Death Spa

| May 27, 2014

Many horror fans who grew up in the 80s and 90s are understandably nostalgic for the days of the local video store, when great box art promised untold terrors. Although the films inside the boxes rarely delivered on those promises, small video companies went out of their way to make eye-catching designs stand out from the other films on the shelves. In the last few years, DVD imprints have been taking advantage of this nostalgia by re-releasing some of those films from the heyday of VHS horror, bringing long-lost horror to a modern audience. One of the more surprising returns has been that of Gorgon Video, perhaps best known for distributing the infamous “shockumentary” Faces of Death. MPI has resurrected the brand once again for a Blu-ray/DVD combo release of the 1990 video store horror hit Death Spa.

Michael Evans (William Bumiller), a widower whose wife Catherine (Shari Shattuck) set herself on fire in a gruesome suicide, runs the Star Body Health Spa, a popular high-tech health club. One night after the club is closed, his girlfriend Laura (Brenda Bakke) is the victim of a bizarre accident when chlorine gas fills her steam room. When the police come to investigate, the number one suspect is Michael’s business parter and former brother-in-law David (Merritt Butrick), Catherine’s twin brother. David designed and programmed the computer that runs the spa, so when the mechanical systems go wrong he seems the obvious culprit. Soon, though, more strange accidents occur in the club: a new high-diving board falls off when club employee Darla (Chelsea Field) tries to use it for the first time, and tiles fly off the wall in the women’s shower room, injuring some of the club members. Michael, convinced the ghost of Catherine is tormenting him, hires a paranormal investigator while police detectives Fletcher and Stone (Frank McCarthy & Rosalind Cash) follow Michael in hopes of catching whoever is sabotaging the spa. The truth turns out to be a lot more complicated–and much, much stranger–than they could have possibly guessed. Will the reign of terror end before the Star Body Mardi Gras party? How is all this going to impact membership numbers?

Death Spa is probably best remembered by VHS horror fans for its outrageous cover art, featuring a man’s rib cage being ripped open by a weight machine and a busty skull-faced woman on an exercise bike. This sense of absurdity carries over into the film itself, even if the things on the cover are never quite in the film–they give the weight machine thing a try, but it was clearly out of their special effects budget. The film never takes itself too seriously, which would be all but impossible anyway given all the spandex, pastel colors and neon on display. What it does take seriously are the gory kills and makeup effects, and while some of them don’t really make much sense (either due to editing or clumsy staging), others are impressively over-the-top. There is one scene in particular involving a killer blender that goes on about a minute longer than it probably needs to, and the final confrontation with the film’s major villain is hilariously protracted and cartoonishly violent, leading directly into the end credits with a totally gratuitous shot that perfectly caps the movie. Horror fans will also be pleased to note that Dawn of the Dead‘s Ken Foree has a major supporting role in the film, among many other familiar faces, virtually all of them wearing something completely embarrassing at one point or another.

Gorgon Video have given Death Spa a very nice treatment for this new release, a Blu-ray/DVD combo pack that includes two major special features that are exciting for fans of the film: a feature-length commentary track with director Michael Fischa, editor Michael Kewley, and producer Jamie Beardsley, and “An Exercise in Terror: The Making of Death Spa,” a 50-minute “behind the scenes” featurette detailing the production of the film that includes interviews with stars William Bumiller and Shari Shattuck as well as Kewley, Beardsley, production designer Robert Schulenberg, Steadicam operator Elizabeth Ziegler and others. This featurette also includes home video footage shot on set during the shoot, giving a fascinating peek into the film’s production. The film itself has been scanned in 2K from the original camera negative, and its garish, day-glo color palette has never looked better. It may not be a lost classic of the genre, but Death Spa is a goofy, gory, unpretentious good time, and well worth checking out for any fan of 80s horror.

MPI/Gorgon Video released Death Spa on Blu-ray/DVD on 27 May 2014. Special features include a commentary track, a 50-minute “making-of” featurette, and the film’s theatrical and video trailers.

About the Author:

Jason Coffman is a film writer living in Chicago. He is author of "The Unrepentant Cinephile," and a regular contributor to Daily Grindhouse and Film Monthly as well as a member of the Chicago Independent Film Critics Circle. He is co-director of the Chicago Cinema Society and proud owner of 35mm prints of Andy Milligan's "Guru, the Mad Monk." Follow his long-form film writing on Medium:

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