Home Video Hovel: Death Spa, by Williamson Balliet


There is a certain beauty and innocence to filmic depictions of computer systems and their operators from the 1980s and 90s. They possessed endless possibilities, with their power denoted only by their size and quantity of blinking lights. Couple this with the general ignorance of what “hacking” was, how it was accomplished, and by whom, it usually means there will be at least some fun to be had in watching a film attempt to tread computational waters. And this remains true for Michael Fischa’s Death Spa, a ridiculous exploitation horror film about a gym entirely run by a computer that grotesquely kills people in ways I’m not certain the filmmaker or I understand.

Of course I know that those showering women were burned by chemicals or the resistance on that workout machine just ripped a man part. What I mean is that this film seems to operate by an insane logic, and by B-movie standards at that. The events of its finale are genuinely perplexing but not really in a very fun or funny way, as often found in this type of cinema. There is no hint of self-awareness despite its attempts to unite the paranormal with absurd technology, or that people still seem to be attending this spa in droves after multiple mysterious murders. Also, the film casts the great Ken Foree but he is relegated to the role of second fiddle to the uncharismatic lead.

But that is not to say there is no fun to be had with Death Spa. Once these complaints are reconciled and the film’s gleeful preoccupation with torturing naked women is brushed aside as simply the trappings of the genre, it is easy to revel in the movie’s ludicrousness. The kills are pretty original at times and decidedly preposterous, and with enough red paint to coat a small province. And that’s really why anyone would watch a movie like this. For instance, amidst the film’s climax a disposable character’s throat is torn apart by a frozen fish. You know, like those frozen fish they keep at your local gym.

And, as one would imagine for a film called Death Spa filmed in the late 1980s, the movie seems to be sponsored by the concept of neon colors. The wardrobe of every member of the gym could never exist past the decade and would make Suzanne Somers blush. The score occasionally tries desperately to emulate those found in the works of Brian De Palma’s, but is mostly just a product of its time and budget. Yet perhaps best of all, the film solidifies its place in time when a member of the spa turns down a woman’s advances with the amazing line, “I’m Beta, you’re VHS.”

So yes, of course the movie Death Spa is bad. It’s preposterous, tasteless, and for the most part, inept. The central conceit of the film is illogical compared even to products with a similarly exploitative aesthetic. The attempt at portraying a sensual dinner between the male and female leads is laughable and the various investigations into the murders are simply mind-numbing. And for a film not even 90 minutes in length, there are a mystifying amount of loose ends if anyone cares to watch this movie for the plot. But obviously, these concerns are frivolous. The question is whether or not Death Spa is fun and funny enough to crack a beer to while it whisks you away to a world of bad clothes, poor acting, and fundamental misunderstandings of computers. And the answer to that is a resounding yes, but you may drop a couple of IQ points in the process.

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