Monday, January 29, 2018

"Things That Go Beep and Buzz" - Death Spa (1989)

The late 1980s were a high water mark for devotees of neon-infused horror movies, and few films are as neon-infused as the remarkable Death Spa (1989), a combination of Hitchcockian suspense, American giallo, supernatural thrills, and 12-inch computer monitors.

Many of your universe's top critics fail to appreciate the qualities of Death Spa. For example, the renowned writer shark-43, on IMDB, writes that Death Spa consists of a "ridiculous script, bad acting, lame music and horrible directing." Similarly, revronster writes, "'Death Spa' is terribly made and is filled with bad acting, atrocious editing, a story that pretty much makes no logical sense and terrible practical effects and death sequences." Finally, adriangr writes, "Death Spa has forgettable characters (several of whom look the same), confusing motivations, a really silly true culprit, and really bad gore scenes." I must say this last sentence is unusual in that it is entirely wrong. None of the characters look remotely similar, their motivations are clearer than clear, the culprit is frightening, and the gore scenes are tremendous.

I suppose the only way to counter the critics' ridiculous assertions is to review the brilliant cinematic tour de force that is Death Spa.

In the clever opening, the neon sign of Starbody Health Spa is struck by lightning. Somehow, only a few letters remain lit after the lightning strike: the letters spelling out Death Spa.

(No mention is made in the film about repairing the neon sign, so I can only assume that the name of the establishment remains Death Spa for the remainder of the story.)

The camera slowly moves into and through the spa as the credits roll, revealing a sparse selection of exercise equipment and a young woman performing a dance workout. A man sneaks up on her; it is not a killer but the legendary Ken Foree playing a trainer named Marvin. He tells her she is the last person in the spa, so she needs to lock up.

Inadvisedly, the woman, Laura, decides to use the steam room.

Like cinematic steam rooms everywhere, this one has a self-locking door and a faulty thermometer. Laura is almost killed by the steam (and, we find out later, chlorine gas), but she manages to break a window, then falls unconscious.

We next follow Michael Evans, the owner of the spa, as he drives his yellow Porsche down Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles to the hospital where Laura has been taken. “Fortunately, it’s not as bad as it looks,” the doctor tells Michael, ushering him into a hospital room where Laura lies nude under a gauzy blanket.

Without slowing down by elaborating on Laura’s condition, the film moves back to the very busy spa the next day. We find out that two men are monitoring the goings-on in the weight room through closed-circuit TV, and they are able to control the exercise equipment using what appears to be an Apple ][ keyboard. (It is not explained how they can control the analog cycling machines that have neither network nor power cables.)

Detectives wearing blazers visit the spa to investigate, one of them played by a sarcastic Rosalind Cash. “It was an accident,” Michael tells them.

“Yeah, but this accident nearly dissolved a an Alka Seltzer,” says the detective.

Sensibly, the detectives want to investigate the computer room and the programmer, David, the twin brother of Michael’s late wife. It seems the computer program controls the entire facility. David is played by Merritt Butrick, the son of Captain Kirk himself.

David proves he wasn’t controlling the computer last night by handing the detectives printed copies of all computer activity.

(It must be noted that David’s computer setup is in need of an ergonomic makeover. It consists of two 12-inch displays encased in steel, one to the left of the keyboard and one to the right, with a telephone in between.)

Next, a woman is mildly inconvenienced when a high diving board’s screw mysteriously unscrews itself. The woman falls into the pool in a slightly different position than she intended.

As the shenanigans continue, we find out that Michael’s wife was burned to death in her wheelchair. We also find out that Michael has been sleeping with various women at the spa, including the first victim of chlorine gas.

In one of the film’s classic sequences, shower room tiles begin flying off the wall to attack a group of nude women. Again, the haunted spa has inconvenienced a small number of customers.

“Who needs weight reduction through terror?” says one of the women to Michael, after the horrifying incident is over.

A more serious event occurs when a weight lifter is somehow cracked in half when the resistance on his machine increases.

Mr. Butrick proves himself to be the voice of reason: “You can’t blame the computer for tiles flying off shower walls. The computer doesn’t control tiles, for Christ’s sake.”

Laura, the first victim from the chlorine gas in the steam room, is released from the hospital to continue her affair with Michael. The only effect of the chlorine gas, of course, is that Laura is now blind.

The shenanigans continue at breakneck pace. One woman in a locker room is distracted by locker doors opening and closing. She is impaled through the throat by what appears to be a crossbow bolt.

Apparently sleuthing, Michael accesses his brother-in-law’s computer system, revealing that not only is “Please” a valid system command, but that Mr. Butrick’s top-level password is Catherine, his dead twin sister’s name.

In a Hitchcockian bit of suspense, the blinded Laura is also sleuthing in the health spa, but being blind she does not realize the crossbow-bolted woman’s body has been stuffed into Laura’s own locker. (This scene also dispels the myth that the blind have a compensatory acuteness in their other senses, as Laura does not smell or otherwise sense the rotting corpse 15 inches from her nose.)

The athletic Michael continues to ponder the mystery. As do most of us when we face a difficult problem, Michael sits nude in a rocking chair to ponder potential solutions.

As he rocks, he flashes back to what appears to be the self-immolation of his wife Catherine. He rushes to his bed, where Laura is sleeping. Without pleasantries, he admits, “Whenever I’m in the club, and even sometimes when I’m in this house, I feel a presence. It’s Catherine.”

Laura wakes up, but clearly she is not sleepy at all. “Even in death, she still has a hold on you,” Laura says eloquently.

“Goodnight, sweetheart,” he tells Laura, climbing into bed, apparently unaware of the irony/hypocrisy of sleeping with his girlfriend and believing his wife’s ghost to be ever-present.

Michael hires a paranormal investigator, a man named Dr. Moray whose office is filled with skulls and spears, and who, taking a pistol from his desk, summarizes his philosophy: “There is more to this job than things that go beep and buzz.”

(Perhaps I am unfamiliar with paranormal investigation in your universe, as I do not associate ghosts and psychic phenomena with “things that go beep and buzz.” However, Dr. Moray has some kind of a magic stick that looks like a hypodermic needle, one that lights up and shows him psychic visions based on objects, so perhaps it is this object to which he refers.)

After another woman is killed in the basement by acid in the fire sprinklers, Dr. Moray spends the night investigating the death spa with his magic hypodermic needle. He finds the acid victim, her body reduced to a Fulciesque pile of goop.

Then he is murdered by a woman in a nightgown who throws him into the ceiling, presumably Catherine’s ghost.

Circumstantial evidence implies that Merritt Butrick is involved in the killings, so Michael and the police detectives break into Mr. Butrick’s house, only to find the house empty. They infer that Mr. Butrick has been dressing as his twin sister, much like Norman Bates dressing as his mother. They put out an APB.

The final act occurs at the death spa’s Mardis Gras costume party, the biggest night of the year, for some reason. All the storylines come together, as supernatural Catherine’s ghost kills a man in a pirate costume and takes his identity, while the spa’s lawyer attempts to sabotage the club’s success in an ill-advised attempt to take it over financially.

Catherine’s ghost kidnaps the no-longer-blind Laura and ties her to a tanning bed.

The ghost also reveals her motivation: Lonely in the afterlife, she wants Michael to commit suicide and join her.

The lawyer subplot comes to a sudden supernatural end when the ghost drives a peg through his head, turning his face into hamburger on the coals in the sauna.

In the thrilling climax, it is revealed that the ghost is taking over Mr. Butrick’s body, but he might just be able to fight its control. The ghost tells Michael, “Let’s die together and live forever in hell.”

The last 10 minutes of the film are filled with surreal supernatural mayhem. A detective is attacked in a freezer for no apparent reason by a moray eel, perhaps a reference to the paranormal investigator’s name, Dr. Moray. A woman’s death is caused by a smoothie blender chopping her hand. Ken Foree is thrown through a window.

In the end, Michael causes electrical mayhem by shorting out the power box. Of course, this has the result of destroying the computer, setting the spa on fire, and electrocuting the malevolent ghost, who catches fire and then explodes.

The happy ending has Michael, Laura, and Ken Foree hugging, surrounded by the bodies of dozens of the spa’s patrons. Thus, this spa provides a happy ending.

The credits roll while a song called “Killer Groove” by a band called Squirt Gun plays, though in the credits the song is misidentified as “Killer Grove.”

Like many cinematic masterpieces, Death Spa is actually more than one movie. It begins as a combination techno thriller/police procedural, as it appears a malicious computer hacker is causing deaths at the spa via computer control of the door locks, sprinkler systems, and shower tiles. The middle section of Death Spa becomes a stylish American jello (sorry, giallo) movie, introducing questions about Merritt Butrick's gender identity as well as his sanity. Finally, the film becomes a supernatural horror movie along the lines of Bava's Demons (1985) or Tenney's Night of the Demons (1988), or really any 1980s movie with the word Demons in the title. It must be said that all three of these films work equally well.

Director Michael Fischa directed three movies with 1989 releases: Death Spa, Crack House with Jim Brown and Richard Roundtree, and the well known My Mom's A Werewolf with John Saxon. In later years, he was involved in two of the at least eight films with the title Deadtime Stories. Death Spa, no doubt, is probably the man's crowning achievement. Few films combine the thrills of watching people run a gym, watching bodies dissolved with acid, and watching Ken Foree being thrown through a window more effectively than Michael Fischa's Death Spa.