Hello! It’s been a little while since we’ve had a new Catalog From The Beyond, hasn’t it? To be honest, in a year when it felt like my brain cells were squeezing out of my head like a tube of toothpaste, I had to take a break from some of the workload. But with the dawning of the New Year, I’m ready to hit the reset button and dive back into the Catalog.
I think it only fair to ease into things, however, so the following take won’t be the spiciest one I’ve ever put forth: Ken Foree seems like a pretty cool dude. After winning our hearts as the stoic Peter in George A. Romero’s classic Dawn of the Dead, he’s stayed there pretty much ever since in movies like From Beyond, Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre III, Lords of Salem, and a bevy of other genre staples. He’s got a steady, even-keeled presence that you just can’t help being drawn to, and I still maintain that he and Keith David deserve a talk show off the strength of their interviews in Horror Noire (not to mention an amazing rendition of “Monster Mash”).
So, when I decided to blind watch the 1989 haunted health club extravaganza Death Spa, I did so with a bit of trepidation, since I didn’t know if the film would make good use of Foree or just have him around long enough to slap his name on the credits before unceremoniously killing him off. While I’m happy to say that Foree does indeed survive to the end credits, I also think he’s woefully underused in a film that suffers from trying to weave way too many threads into a movie marketed as a slasher where the killer is literally a spa.
While at first glance the spa-as-slasher angle might reek of a desperate attempt to add flare to a dying subgenre in the late ’80s, per /Film’s How Did This Get Made’s oral history, was actually planted in the dawn of the decade. It would take until damn near 1990, however, for the film to get in the can.
Producers Jamie Beardsley and Walter Shenson teamed with Australian director Michael Fischa (for what would be his first feature gig) with the express goal of making a horror movie, but without having any story in place. With the recent explosion (and subsequent bubble burst) of the high-end health club market, the group thought it would be fun to explore the notion of one of them being haunted.
Alas, the first screenplay completed by James Bartruff in ’83 proved to be less than adequate, and when Mitch Paradise was hired for a rewrite, he pretty much gutted Bartruff’s version and started from scratch. He notes feeling that the story needed something “a little twisted,” but it seems as though he twisted a little too hard (or perhaps it was some last-minute tweaking from Beardsley and a fourth writer Kirk Honeycutt) because there is really just too much going on in this movie.
Of course, there’s the killer spa itself, owned by well-meaning meathead Michael (William Bumiller), whose computer-automated equipment gimmick works like gangbusters in getting customers in the door, but also leaves him vulnerable to the machinations of his late wife Christina’s (Shari Shattuck) vengeful spirit as she starts picking off the clientele in increasingly gruesome ways.
But the ground rules for how she does this seem a bit murky, as she’s able to control elements of the gym that couldn’t possibly be connected to the computer system. She also possesses her twin brother, David (Merritt Butrick), so she may also be using him as a vessel screwing with the system, although that seems redundant if she’s able to literally haunt it. On top of all of that, it also turns out that some of the shenanigans at the gym are acts of sabotage schemed by Michael’s seedy lawyer Tom (Robert Lipton) and manager Priscilla (Alexa Hamilton).
Throw in the requisite police investigation subplot from Sgt. Stone (Roslind Cash) and Lt. Fletcher (Francis X. McCarthy), along with the very unnecessary (but entertaining) paranormal investigation subplot from Dr. Lido Moray (Joseph Whipp), and everything just gets too busy for the right elements to get enough attention.
One such element is the relationship between Michael and his employee/football buddy Marvin (Foree). When the mysterious mishaps start flaring up, we’re teased with the possibility that Michael and Marvin may form something of an amateur investigative team as they start exploring what’s causing the incidents. Alas, they drop this thread and Marvin is pretty much forgotten until the third act, which is a shame, as I could have done with a lot more of the “Rocky and Apollo” bromance vibe that Bumiller and Foree were giving off.
Even the motivations of the main mystery get lost in the sauce, as I’ll be damned if I could tell you exactly why Christine’s ghost had it out for Michael. We find out that she committed suicide via self-immolation after she was paralyzed due to complications from her pregnancy. But there are also hints that Christine suspected Michael of being unfaithful and is overall simply depicted as being generally mean-spirited (get it??). Essentially, it’s the type of woman-scorned-but-not-really backstory that you’d expect a dude to write in the ’80s.
Now, the good news is that Christine’s questionable vindictiveness does carry over into some pretty over-the-top gore gags that work damn well, particularly for a film with a $750,000 budget. We get locker room impalings, weight machines cracking open rib cages, and even a death-by-fish that is shockingly given appropriate context via a scene at the club’s sushi bar. But I’d have to say my favorite death is an extended melting sequence caused by a corrosive sprinkler system that goes on so long that borders the line between cruel and comical in a way that I believe was intended.
I also need to give props to production designer Robert Schulenberg, as the aesthetics at the Starbody Health Spa have something of a heightened, otherworldly quality that played with the neon color palette popular at the time to give the gym an ominous, even sinister feel to it. Someone even had to design a sign for Starbody Health Spa that would pay homage to Motel Hell when an errant lightning bolt knocks out all but the letters that spell out the movie’s titles in the opening credits.
I would have assumed going into Death Spa that it was just going to take a kooky premise and repetitively drive it into the ground, but ultimately it suffers from the opposite problem by trying too hard. Fischa and company would have done well to take it just a bit easier and let the spa murder do most of the heavy lifting. That said, there’s still quite a bit of physically fit mayhem to be enjoyed here, in all of its skin-tight spandex glory.