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Death Spa (1989)

Gorgon Video
Blu-ray Disc Released: 5/27/2014

All Ratings out of

or Depending on Your Taste


Review by Mike Long, Posted on 5/23/2014

In the past, I've mentioned that I'm not a huge fan of movies which some refer to as being "So bad that they're good". I've seen way too many truly bad movies and I didn't derive any pleasure from most of them. While we often lump low-budget flops into this grouping, I find that most "bad" movies actually had a decent backing, they simply turned out to be boring. However, I'm not immune to this concept and I even have a favorite film in this category -- 1980's The Children, a film which is so misguided and thick-headed, that it has a certain amount of charm. I had a similar reaction to Death Spa. At first glance, one would assume that this would be nothing more than an embarrassing flashback to the 1980s. But, this movie is so much more than that.

Death Spa opens at the Starbody Health Spa, where Laura (Brenda Bakke) decides to visit the sauna just as the gym is closing. But, something goes wrong and she receives burns. Michael (William Bumiller), who owns the club and is also Laura's boyfriend, rushes to her side. Returning to the spa, he questions instructor Marvin (Ken Foree) about the incident, as well as David (Meritt Butrick), who oversees the club's elaborate computer system. Everything at Starbody is controlled by computers and when another member is injured, Michael begins to become convinced that somehow his deceased wife, who committed suicide, and who also happens to be David's sister, is involved. As Michael starts to investigate, the bodies pile up and he also suspects that someone is trying to steal the spa from him.

Those of us who were around in the 80s know that; A) There were a lot of independent horror movies being made; B) These movies covered a wide variety of subjects; and C) Many of them haven't held up very well. Given those guidelines, Death Spa should certainly be at home with its brethren from the era. Despite the low-budget, the makers of the film have clearly tried to give it a good look and the interior of the gym is very detailed. (It could have easily just been a room with a rowing machine.) When boiled down to its basic parts, the story isn't bad, and if you remove all of the cliches, it shows some ingenuity.

Those aspects aside, a lot goes wrong in Death Spa. So much so that I'm not sure where to start. Should it be the aerobics-class meets jazz dance numbers which occur throughout the film, derailing the pacing? Is it the fact that the psychic investigator uses what looks like a sex toy attached to a suitcase to check out the gym? How about the fact that pandemonium breaks out during the finale...but no one seems to notice? Did I mention the haunted fish? This movie throws many, many ideas at the viewer and all of them feel incredibly ludicrous and goofy. The gym's computer control room appears to be littered with cast-offs from the sets of multiple sci-fi TV shows. Seriously, what are all of those computer banks on the wall for?

Here's the big question; How did Mystery Science Theater 3000 not get a hold of this movie? Death Spa is a cornucopia of awfulness from beginning to end, but the movie never stops trying and this is what makes it watchable. If you go into this film attempting to take it seriously, you will turn it off within minutes. But, if it's approached with an eye for fun, Death Spa is a hoot. From Michael's very pleated pants to the fact that Michael's stunt double is wearing a bad wig to the notion that fire can cure paralysis, there is something wacky happening in every scene of this film and just when you think that it can't get weirder or more out of control, it crosses another line. I don't know if the makers of this movie were truly going for broke or simply has no idea what they were doing, but Death Spa doesn't contain many dull moments.

Any movie which also goes by the name "Witch Bitch" certainly deserves a second look. Death Spa took several years to get released and then disappeared. (As much as I used to scour video stores, I don't recall every seeing this title on the shelf.) Now, we have a chance to experience the movie in all of its glory. Ridiculous to a fault and full of mistakes (am I the only one who saw the guy in the computer room mirror), this is not a good movie. But, it would be a great movie to watch at a party with a group of like-minded friends. Death Spa may not deliver as a horror film, but it does act as a time-capsule filled with awesome.

Death Spa brings plenty of spandex to Blu-ray Disc courtesy of Gorgon Video. The film has been letterboxed at 1.85:1 and the Disc contains an AVC 1080p HD transfer which runs at an average of 18 Mbps. The image has some pros and cons. The colors look good, most notably the bright pastels and bold reds. The image is rarely too bright or dark, and the action is always visible. However, the picture shows noticeable grain throughout. There are also scratches and white spots. I don't know if this transfer was taken from a theatrical print, but the source material has seen better days. The image shows some detail, but it also looks flat at times. The Disc carries a DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track which runs at 48 kHz and an average of 1.8 Mbps. The track provides clear dialogue and sound effects. Unlike the video, I didn't find many issues with the audio. While we don't get any dynamic audio effects here, the music doesn't overpower the dialogue (although it tries at times) and the actors are always intelligible (even if we don't know what they are talking about).

The Death Spa Blu-ray Disc contains only a few extras. We begin with an AUDIO COMMENTARY from Director Michael Fischa, Producer Jamie Beardsley, and Editor Michael Kewley. "An Exercise in Terror: The Making of Death Spa" (51 minutes) takes a very in-depth look at the film's creation. The piece contains interviews with Producer Jamie Beardsley, Writer Mitch Paradise, actor William Bumiller and a surprising number of crew members. My favorite quote was "It took us a little while to get the script right." -- They may want to give it one more pass. This does include some vintage on-set video showing everyone at work, most notably during the opening shot. We learn that the movie was shot in 1985-86 -- the copyright on the credits is 1987, but the movie wasn't released until 1989. The nice thing about this featurette is that the speakers have surprisingly good recall about the film and they are pretty frank about the quality of the film. We get the film's THEATRICAL TRAILER and the VIDEO TRAILER.

Review Copyright 2014 by Mike Long