Wow, DEATH SPA was not what I expected from a movie about a spa of death. This is a much more professional and imaginative movie than its Fitness Horror forefather KILLER WORKOUT. Sure, it’s completely ridiculous, because it’s about a whole bunch of spectacular deaths at a health club run by a supercomputer. But it’s a little more credible than that sounds, in my opinion. A little.
It opens with a long, show-offy tracking shot in which some of the letters on the STARBODY HEALTH SPA neon light go out so it spells “D EA TH SPA”. And then the first woman we see practicing alone in the dance studio (Brenda Bakke, UNDER SIEGE 2: DARK TERRITORY) seems to have a screen presence and beauty of a caliber much higher than required. I actually thought damn, she should be the lead, but she’s about to get it.
Actually she survives, but is hospitalized for a while and then wears bandages over her eyes. (And remember, Eric Bogosian threatens to burn her eyeball in US2. Coincidence? Yes.) The lead-lead is William Bumiller (LAST RESORT), who has not gone on to canonization in a Seagal film, but who also seems better than the material needs. As spa owner Michael Evans (not based on the actor from Good Times as far as I can tell) he projects rugged, capable, but not dumb. He gets a call about what happened and rushes there in his Porsche between quick flashbacks of somebody on fire. So right away we know he’s got a fairly noteworthy past.
Turns out his wife Catherine died under terrible circumstances, and police are still suspicious of him. His late wife’s creepy twin brother (Meritt Buttrick, STAR TREK II-III) doesn’t like him, but runs the fancy computer systems, so there is some tension there. After a couple of terrible “accidents” (chlorine gas in the sauna, acid in the sprinklers, body-breaking automated weight machines) Michael wants to shut the whole thing down, but his lawyer convinces him to wait until after the big Mardis Gras party. It’s like in JAWS when they refuse to close the beaches during tourist season.
The Starbody Health Spa is not just a gym, it’s not just a place they make themselves go after work for a little bit to try not to get fat. It’s a state-of-the-art hang out, a hot spot and a second home for the fitness-minded. It has sophisticated computerized weightlifting systems overseen by a control room manned by sometimes a small team of technicians (most of them perverts). It has a huge dance studio, a juice bar, a tanning room (okay, not that healthy, especially considering what happened in KILLER WORKOUT). It’s huge and almost always full of customers and also a place where big cool parties are thrown. It’s a way of life.
So you can see why they’re worried that their bank accounts will take a hit from this, but in the great Fitness Horror tradition the string of gruesome, painful deaths doesn’t seem to phase any of the members at all. They’re surprisingly understanding about the whole thing. Like the two girls who almost get smashed by tiles shooting off of the locker room shower wall, they don’t seem to mind after Michael offers them two months free membership. (He also implies they’re gonna have a threesome, so maybe they have a crush on him that’s worthy of risking death.)
Things get crazy. There’s conspiracy. There’s cross-dressing. There’s (SPOILER) a ghost. And she uses ghost powers. In one scene she causes the food from a walk-in freezer to kill a guy. He gets eaten by frozen fish puppets. (They look kinda like rotted versions of the fish from Pee-wee’s Playhouse.) Catherine can toss people around and stuff. And control computer systems. I’m not sure where she gets the chemicals that she uses to burn people. Maybe they’re ghost chemicals.
I knew Catherine looked familiar. Turns out she’s Shari Shattuck, who played Michael Caine’s right hand lady Liles in ON DEADY GROUND (1994, d. Steven Seagal). You remember Liles, she has one of the top 100 all time greatest moments in the movie when Aegis-1 is under Taft Attack and she comes up with a really good excuse to save her ass:
DAWN OF THE DEAD and FROM BEYOND star Ken Foree gets to be around as club employee and old football buddy of Michael. I don’t know if this is a brag, but I recognized him from his leg when he first appeared standing in the background. This is not one of his better characters, but his likable presence is always welcome in a movie, he seems like a guy who actually gives a shit about the people who are dying. It’s also kinda cool to see Rosalind Cash from OMEGA MAN as one of the cops investigating the spa deaths.
Director Michael Fischa followed this up with the pretty good Anthony Edwards/Lance Henriksen buddy cop movie DELTA HEAT. And before this he did CRACK HOUSE with Jim Brown and Richard Roundtree. I’ve considered watching that one before. Can anybody vouch for it? Fischa is still around, including doing some segments of the George Romero produced anthology DEADTIME STORIES a few years ago.
Weirdly it doesn’t really come across like a satire of ’80s health fads. You can say the same of KILLER WORKOUT, but it’s less surprising there because they don’t seem self aware at all. This one is slicker and a few years more removed from Aerobimania, you expect it to get some laughs from the whole trend. But the main characters are pretty reasonable people and nobody is made fun of very much. In fact, there’s alot of juxtaposition cutting from the gym-goers to the police detectives stuffing greasy hamburgers in their mouths and guzzling Shasta and things like that. If anything the joke is on them for not being healthy.
I respect the sincerity, but it might’ve been cool to really emphasize the fanatic worship of the sculpted body as a contrast with what the brilliant effects people end up doing to them. When it gets gory it gets real gory – there’s a person that just explodes, a face that tears open and dumps out its contents like a breaking bag full of chili, a poor woman that melts under acid sprinklers and turns into a body-shaped gooey mass. I think that’s the worst one. She looks like a salted slug.
You know what, I try to stay in shape but I’m a cheap ass, I don’t go to gyms, I just jog outdoors. I think DEATH SPA supports my approach. But alot of people won’t do that, especially during shitty weather, so I wonder if these filmatists considered the potential outcome of this if it had been really scary. What if it kept people away from gyms like JAWS kept people away from the water?
Just when you thought it was safe to get back on the treadmill
Scream Factory MPI put this out on a beautiful blu-ray, and that’s the last thing we need during this epidemic of obesity in the United States. Shame on you, Scream Factory MPI. Shame. Pretty good movie though.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.