Some horror movies take themselves seriously and deliver the goods in dramatic and spectacular fashion, whether that be something like Se7en or the original Nightmare on Elm Street. Others don’t take themselves seriously at all and go for creativity and nonsense — I’m looking at you, Hatchet, ThanksKilling, and Zombie A-Hole. Then there are those that straddle the fence, being a little too serious to be campy, but missing the creativity to compensate (cough Sharknado cough). This is the sort of Twilight Zone of badness that movies like Death Spa occupy.
The plot in a nutshell is that the deceased wife Catherine (Shari Shattuck) of fitness-club owner Michael (William Bumiller) has somehow inhabited the state-of-the-art (for the ’80s, at least) computer system that runs and automates the entire spa. In a fit of ongoing unfounded jealousy, the spectre starts killing off club members one by one, with the eventual goal of trying to get the widower husband to commit suicide and join her in the afterlife. Then again, it could actually be her twin brother David (Merritt Butrick), who loathes Michael and blames him for his sister’s demise (also stemming from unfounded jealousy). Or maybe it’s his crooked attorney friend Tom (Robert Lipton) who wants to drive Michael crazy so he’ll sell off the club for a steal. For a lead, Bumiller’s timing and delivery in a number of scenes was groan-inducing, making an already cheap production seem even more like a SyFy Original than it already did.
Some of the death sequences don’t even make sense. A client sits on a weight machine to work on his chest, and after a few compressions, it extends to starting position, stays there, and this somehow makes the side of his abdomen split open and spray orange blood everywhere. Another fitness fanatic, in the hopes of hooking up with the club owner, follows a note to delve down into the bowels of the club’s basement for a secret rendezvous, only to find that the sprinkler system has been filled with some kind of acid. She totally could have gotten away from it, except, you know, walking is hard, let alone running. She takes one step, falls down pathetically, and then just chooses to lay there whining while the acid takes about an hour to very slowly eat away her flesh. In another scene, a cop gets pulled into a freezer and is apparently too lazy to stand up. Looked to me like he could have just gotten up and walked out of the room, but instead he just sits on the floor until a reanimated fish or eel or something lunges at him and chews his throat out. The closest thing they had to a legitimate creepy moment was literally one club member putting on a freaky costume to scare someone else before a costume party. The context at least made it a bit weird.
One thing is for sure, though — this movie is dripping with ’80s style and fashion. The neon colors and loose button-down shirts, tweed jackets, mullets, and spray-poofs, it’s all here, and it all kind of hurts in that good way. However, it’s not a period piece made in modern day. This was made at the peak of popularity for all of those regrettable trends. It’s authentic to the point of being uncomfortable in that regard.
Michael eventually confronts his deceased wife, who tells him he has to choose — if he kills himself and goes with her, his new girlfriend Laura (Brenda Bakke) will be set free from the tanning booth that will surely kill her (eventually, I guess). If he stays, Laura will die, along with everyone else in the club that night. Michael calls her bluff, and maybe half to two-thirds of the people make it out alive. It would have been closer to everyone getting out, except concepts like breaking a window are evidently lost on the trapped victims. The same paralyzing incompetence that killed the girl in the basement and the cop in the freezer has everyone frozen in their tracks, unable to swing an arm or fire a synapse to reason a way out of their predicament.
The tail-end of the 88-minute romp has you questioning whether Catherine is really dead and gone, or if (for some ungodly reason) they were trying to set up for a sequel. It’s less of a cliffhanger and more of an undoing of the closure they tried to create moments earlier. People break out of the club and that’s just sort of the end of it. We don’t know what ultimately becomes of Michael and Laura, the club, Catherine, David, or really anyone or anything that was still a variable at that point. Maybe the 50-minute making-of retrospective with cast and crew interviews could explain it, but I couldn’t sit through the whole thing just to find out how a cheesy, lame movie got made. I just wasn’t that interested.
One big plus is that the transition to Blu-ray appears to have been worth the effort. There is still some fuzzing in the scenery simply due to the equipment the movie was originally filmed on, but the transfer has been cleaned up substantially and has a surprisingly sharp look, given the budget and the source material. The sound is also remarkably clean and balanced. This should make the cult fans of this movie giddy.
I like cheesy horror movies and was looking forward to watching this (even if my wife wasn’t), but couldn’t quite get into Death Spa. To be fair, it’s not as bad as Sharknado despite my allusion earlier — they at least tried to make something coherent here. It just lacks inspiration is all, though it does have plenty of nude showering beauties to hold your attention while everyone around them dies in unspectacular fashion.
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