Thursday, July 17, 2014

Culture Shock 07.17.14: 'Death Spa' membership costs an arm and a leg

Some of you younger folks may have a difficult time believing this, but there once was a time when gyms and health clubs weren't all over town making you feel guilty about not going to them.

Then the 1980s came along, and before any of us realized what had happened, we were wearing spandex and sweatbands, Jane Fonda had a second act selling workout tapes, and "jazzercise" became a normal word normal people used in normal conversation. It was terrifying.

Ironically, we were all thinner then, too, which leads me to wonder if science really has worked out the causal relationship between exercise and being fat. But I digress.

If ever there were a craze ripe for treatment in a horror movie, the '80s aerobics craze is it. David A. Prior's 1987 slasher flick "Killer Workout" got to theaters first, but Michael Fischa's "Death Spa" (1989) is the first to stage a comeback on Blu-ray.

Gorgon Video, best known for releasing the infamous "Faces of Death" series back in VHS's heyday, has resurrected "Death Spa" in glorious high definition. Gorgon's Blu-ray/DVD combo set  presents "Death Spa" with all the eye-popping color that made the '80s either gnarly or nightmarish, depending on your point of view. It comes topped with bonus features that include the director's audio commentary, a making-of featurette and trailers. (Amazon offers a movie-only "Death Spa" for purchase or rental on video on demand.)

Fischa knows his stuff. He kicks things off with a tracking shot that might remind horror aficionados of the one that opens John Carpenter's "Halloween." But that's where the similarities end. "Halloween" seems pretty tame in retrospect, but "Death Spa" comes across just as splattery and excessive as ever.

The premise is too much to pass up. Take a bunch of narcissistic, body-obsessed yuppie types (the forerunners of today's dude-bros and woo-girls) and put them in a haunted health spa where the equipment tries to kill them in increasingly gruesome ways. It's body horror for people who listen to Huey Lewis and the News' "Hip to Be Square" unironically. Imagine Patrick Bateman of "American Psycho" torn apart by a possessed elliptical machine, and you'll get the idea.

But to get to all of this death and dismemberment, we have to have a plot of some sort.

Our hero is Michael, played by William Bumiller, who's probably best known for a late-'90s stint on "Guiding Light." Michael is the spa's manager and part-owner. He's also dating one of his employees, the lovely Laura (the underrated Brenda Bakke of "Hot Shots! Part Deux"). And that doesn't sit well with his ex-brother-in-law, David, played by the late Merritt Butrick of "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan" in his final role. It's "ex-brother-in-law" because David's sister, Catherine, committed suicide.

David blames Michael for Catherine's death. Yet despite that simmering hostility, David sticks around the spa because he is the only person who can run its state-of-the-art computer system, which controls everything from the temperature in the steam rooms to the resistance of the weight machines.

You know, it would be a catastrophe if Catherine (Shari Shattuck, who was the replacement Ashley Abbott on "The Young and the Restless" in the '90s) returned as a vengeful spirit, possessed David's computer and then proceeded to maim and kill Michael's customers left and right.

If only Michael could close the spa until he figures out what's up. But the spa's other owners insist on keeping it open for a big Mardi Gras celebration, because that's something health clubs do.

Everyone plays it straight, except for well-traveled character actor Frank McCarthy in the time-honored role of Comic Relief Police Officer. But Fischa cranks up the gore — fake blood, rubber body parts and what looks like ground chuck — to absurdist levels. It's as ridiculous as it is grotesque, but it never fails to be entertaining.

Fischa is having a joke at the expense of every overly macho mullet-head who ever pumped iron. When Michael feeds Laura — temporarily blinded by a spa mishap — a limp stalk of asparagus during a "romantic" dinner, it says it all so obviously you don't even need Sigmund Freud to explain it.

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