Every once in a while, the first few frames of a film will capture you. It isn’t common, but certain ones – in any genre – ingratiate right out of the gate. Such is the case with Death Spa (1988); when lightning hits the ‘Starbody Health Spa’ leaving only the letters ‘Death Spa’ lit up within the first moments, I knew I was in for some fun. Anything that riffs on Motel Hell (1980)’s ‘Motel Hello’ sign can’t be all bad, you know? Death Spa is as high energy as its title implies, twice as goofy, and has more than enough plot for three films. (All nonsensical, I promise.)
It was a weird time for horror; by the late ‘80s slashers couldn’t cut through a paper bag, so filmmakers sometimes turned to the supernatural for new thrills (or at least ones absent from the screen for a bit). Director Michael Fischa (My Mom's a Werewolf), writers James Bartruff (What’s Happening Now!) and Mitch Paradise (Remington Steele) seem to have had a blast concocting this immediate time capsule of color and carnage.
After a Cannes debut in ‘88 (and a very limited run Stateside), the film made its way to home video worldwide and finally to North American markets by Halloween of 1990; search as I did to find accolades and awards for Death Spa (OG title: Witch Bitch) from its day, I came up empty handed. However, the film has found a new audience with the advent of boutique labels and streaming services, as well as the less discerning horror fan looking for gratuitous anything. (Congrats – you’ve come to the right party!) For a film concerned with health, there sure are a lot of bloodied and/or goopy dead folk hanging around the Starbody. Let’s find out why, shall we?
After our Motel Hell tribute, the swooping camera heads inside the spa to find blonde beauty Laura (Brenda Bakke - Tales from the Crypt: Demon Knight) dancing in the Flashdance-meets-Logan’s Run aerobics center of the Starbody to a pulsating anonymous rock track, oblivious that someone – or something – may be watching. She says goodnight to the spa’s manager Marvin (Ken Foree - Dawn of the Dead), who tells her to lock up when she’s done as she’s the last one there. When she settles in for her steam, she quickly notices that an unhealthy amount of chlorine has been added, and all the doors are locked. Laura manages to break a window before passing out.
Spa owner Michael (William Bumiller - Species) rushes to the hospital; we assume Laura is his wife, but it turns out she’s his girlfriend, which would be fine. But no, we learn that he had a wife who is in fact, deceased. Michael’s ex Catherine (Shari Shattuck - Uninvited) decided to set herself on fire in an open field after losing their baby but haunts him in his sleep every night for kicks. A tragic figure from the past? Yes, now we’re talking! What’s that? She only died a year ago? Oh. That doesn’t seem like a particularly prolonged mourning period. She’s likely pissed at Michael for picking out China with Laura so soon after her demise; a fair charge and one that’s hard to disprove as Michael looks at any woman who moves, and tries to bed half of those.
But he really digs Laura and brings her home with him to recover; third-degree burns and temporary blindness can’t stop their love. (Although a potential threesome with two female club members crosses his mind once or twice.) Meanwhile back at the spa, we meet Catherine’s twin brother David (Merritt Butrick - Square Pegs), who is truly responsible for the spa’s success: he electronically controls a fully-automated gym, showers, all of the facilities under extreme safety measures for its mostly female clientele. Why has he stuck around after his sister’s passing? (Maybe he’s unable to cancel his membership.)
Anyway, his computer system comes under the scrutiny of the police after Laura’s “accident”; they (Rosalind Cash and Frank McCarthy) happen to show up at the spa right after the new diving board becomes mysteriously boltless, convincing them to open an investigation. (It won’t be me who tells them no one is dead yet.) After another spa mishap involving flying shower tiles, Michael brings in parapsychologist Dr. Lido Moray (Joseph Whipp - Scream) – who besides having one of the best character names in genre history – who uses beep-boop machines to check objects for psychic residue (or mildew; I’m not sure it matters).
Is Catherine behind the deaths? Is she in cahoots with her twin brother? Did I mention there’s a whole other subplot involving corporate espionage? At Death Spa, you’ll either sweat from the workout or have an embolism trying to keep tabs on everything. Alright, it isn’t that confusing; but that opening spa/hospital gambit could have used some ironing out as to the relationships, and the espionage seems completely unnecessary. (Every third film in the ‘80s had a corporate takeover plot. Don’t look it up – it’s true.)
So what do we have in Death Spa? I’ve heard ‘supernatural slasher’ bandied about a few times, but I’d have to disagree with that sentiment. Same era for sure; but other than the occasional moments of nudity – which are unreservedly gratuitous – the deaths have much more in common with the dream logic of a Freddy Krueger rather than the phallic thrust of Mr. Meyers. I think it’s straight up supernatural.
A taste of that supernatural carnage includes: blender boo-boos, When Frozen Fish Attack, skin-stripping steam, and so much more! The further on Death Spa goes, the less it seems to care about the sanitary standards of the Starbody gym. Hats off to the effects team (led by Mel Slavick - Bride of Re-Animator), who manage to get in some very moist moments amidst the iron pumping and muscle flexing. The MPAA had long since come down on horror, but Death Spa manages to let some nice work shine through.
Speaking of nice work, the veterans in the cast turn in the best performances. How Cash (The Omega Man) and McCarthy (The Man with Two Brains) manage to keep a straight face while looking like they’re having fun doing it, I have no idea.
Which is kind of my less-than-laser-focused opinion on how Death Spa works. It’s an indefinable thing; there’s no accolades waiting by the front door, then or now. However, for those who seek simple pleasures of the flesh – on and off the bone – grab your leggings and find a spot; the next session is about to begin.
Death Spa is available on Blu-ray from Gorgon Video and is streaming on ShudderNext: Read Earlier Installments of This Series!