By the late 1980s, horror was spinning its wheels. Major horror franchises – including Friday the 13th – were running on fumes. As the slasher declined in profitability, horror increasingly found its way to the straight-to-video market. What followed was bizarre, cheapo horror movies like Slaughter High, Nightmare Beach, and Cheerleader Camp. Occasionally, some of these oddities found cult status. Both Intruder and Killer Klowns From Outer Space are genuinely fun movies. But no one is likely going to label Sleepaway Camp II: Unhappy Campers a classic. One title that slipped into obscurity – Death Spa – embodies the best (or worst) of late 80s horror.
Michael Evans owns and runs one of the hippest gyms in Los Angeles. Everything in the gym is fully automated by a sophisticated computer system. Following a series of gruesome accident, Michael begins to believe that the spirit of his dead wife has haunted his equipment.
Death Spa is the Epitome of Late 80s Horror
First and foremost, Death Spa is a bad movie. Anyone who grew up in the 1980s will recognize the picture quality of the straight-to-video release. Still there’s plenty of 80s goodness to fuel your nostalgia. Given that the movie is set in a gym, you’ll get to see plenty of colorful spandex. Did I mention the aerobics scene? In addition, Death Spa includes plenty of cheap gore with bright red fake blood and guts that look like tomato paste. Some of you make think twice before using a chest fly machine the next time you’re at the gym. As a bonus, Death Spa has the kind of gratuitous nudity that was almost a perquisite for 80s horror.
Given that the movie is set in a gym, you’ll get to see plenty of colorful spandex. Did I mention the aerobics scene?
Unfortunately, it’s not just the neon spandex that aged poorly. Death Spa takes a pretty cavalier approach to suicide. While this part of the story produces some of the movie’s only genuinely haunting imagery, it’s simultaneously superficial. Historically, the horror genre has also grossly misrepresented the transgendered community. Director Michael Fischa doesn’t necessarily directly cast one of his characters as transgendered, but Death Spa still deviantizes the character. Amongst the cast, Ken Foree (Dawn of the Dead, The Devil’s Rejects) is probably the only noteworthy actor. Not surprisingly, Death Spa gives Foree absolutely nothing to do. Maybe he owed Fishca a favour.
Death Spa Exists on a Separate Plane of Reality
Simply put, Death Spa is so illogical that it transcends to another level of ‘bad movie’. Entire podcasts could be dedicated to all the head-shaking plot points. Early on, Death Spa seems like it’s tapping into the same 80s fear of automation that defined a slew of movie including Chopping Mall. But screenwriters James Bartruff and Mitch Paradise don’t let little things like physics get in the way. No, this automatic gym computer system unscrews diving boards and makes mirrors explode. Except it’s not a computer system gone awry. Eventually Death Spa introduces a supernatural element. Either Michael’s dead wife, Catherine, is a ‘ghost in the machine’ or she’s possessed her brother. And maybe he’s the ‘ghost in the machine”? But is that Catherine’s body at the end of the movie? If so, what happened to her brother, David?
But screenwriters James Bartruff and Mitch Paradise don’t let little things like physics get in the way.
Other lapses in logic plague Death Spa’s plot. More questions get raised than answered. Just why would the police leave the gym open after several mysterious deaths? Who would keep going to this gym? Do all gyms make it that hard to cancel your membership? Why would you still hold a party in a gym that might be haunted? Absolutely nothing here makes the slightest bit of sense. Somewhere amidst the insanity is a subplot about a duplicitous lawyer trying to steal Michael’s gym. Yes, the same gym where patrons keep dying. And when the lawyer steals important documents he decides to stick around for a sauna visit.
Death Spa is a Gonzo Horror Movie for 80s Purists
If you make it to the end of Death Spa, you’ll likely wonder what you just watched. In the tradition of other late 80s horror movies, this is an absolutely gonzo movie where common sense and logical storytelling don’t exist. What Fishca et al deliver is ‘lightning in a bottle’ level of insanity and nonsense that might be perfect B-movie fare if it was just a little shorter. A director’s commentary detailing just what thought processes went into making this movie would be worth it’s weight in gold. To be honest, only diehard 80s horror fans will appreciate this one.