"You'll sweat blood" when you watch DEATH SPA, one of MPI Home Video most popular direct-to-video titles resurrected in high definition as part of their "Gorgon Video" line on Blu-ray/DVD combo.
Los Angeles' Starbody Health Spa has the latest workout gear, toned bodies, a juice bar, a fully automatic computer system, and perhaps a literal ghost in the machine. A strange accident involving chlorine in the steam room that leaves trainer Laura (Brenda Baake, L.A. CONFIDENTIAL) – the lover of recently-widowed owner Michael (THE GUIDING LIGHT's William Bumiller) – temporarily blinded with minor chemical burns turns out to be only the first of a series of mishaps. Many (but not all) of the increasingly deadly mishaps seem to involve the automated control system installed and maintained by Michael's former brother-in-law David (Merritt Butrick, FRIGHT NIGHT 2), and Michael wants to shut down the system; but Michael's lawyer Tom (Robert Lipton, CHATTERBOX!) insists that no action be taken until after the money-making Mardi Gras party since the automated system is what makes the spa unique amidst L.A.'s many competitive gyms. Michael starts to suffer from nightmares in which his wife Catherine (Shari Shattuck, IMMORTAL SINS) – who burned herself alive after suffering damage to her spine during a miscarriage – compels him to suicide, and messages supposedly from Catherine show up on the computer system, causing him to wonder if someone is trying to ruin his company and drive him crazy or if his wife really is reaching out from beyond the grave.
One of a handful of features mounted by Waleed and Malik Ali's Maljack Productions and distributed by his MPI Home Video label (theatrical distribution was handled by Shapiro-Glickenhaus with the film sold to foreign territories as WITCH BITCH) – others included the notorious HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER and its sequel – DEATH SPA is more ambitious and polished than David A. Prior's KILLER WORKOUT (1987) to name another gym horror movie (as prevalent as bad aerobics was in eighties slasher films, there aren't a lot that utilize the gym setting) but has the look and feel of an eighties/nineties DTV erotic thriller outside of its horror sequences. The script by TV writers Mitch Paradise and James Bartruff is actually diverting with the supernatural element unquestionable but additional intrigues causing the attentive viewer to rethink some of the prior events; although the middle does drag as it turns some underutilized supporting characters into red herrings and a few more extras are knocked off (albeit in less fantastic ways than earlier on or during the frenzied climax). The make-up effects of Mel Slavik (BRIDE OF RE-ANIMATOR) are more fanciful than realistic and never particularly "horrific" with the animatronics more comical than surreal; the pyrotechnics, however, are spectacular for the film's apparent budget. The supporting cast includes DAWN OF THE DEAD's Ken Foree and DUST DEVIL's Chelsea Field among the training staff, and Karyn Parsons (FRESH PRINCE OF BEL AIR's spoiled rich girl Hilary), BIKINI DRIVE-IN's Tane McClure (daughter of Doug), soap actor Hank Cheyne (ANOTHER WORLD, SUNSET BEACH), and Vanessa Bell Calloway (COMING TO AMERICA) among the victimized clientele. Joseph Whipp (A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET) pops up as a parapsychologist, Francis X. McCarthy (ALTERED STATES) and Rosalind Cash (THE OMEGA MAN) pop up intermittently as detectives who are oddly casual about the rising body count, and future SHOWGIRLS and STRIPTEASE choreographer Marguerite Pomerhn-Derricks is credited as a dance double.
Previously released in both R and unrated versions on VHS by MPI Home Video in 1990 – and in Taiwan as a Dolby Surround laserdisc – DEATH SPA has been long in getting the digital treatment apart from a couple import DVDs under the alternate title WITCH BITCH. It goes without saying that Gorgon's 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.78:1 widescreen Blu-ray (and anamorphic DVD) is the best that the film has ever looked on video, but – rare white specs aside – I would imagine that it may look even better than the limited theatrical engagements. Some of the darker scenes (as well as the steam room shots) are grainier, but the more saturated gel lighting of cinematographer Arledge Armanaki (HOWLING V: THE REBIRTH) pops off the screen (sometimes more so than the blood which looks a shade light here) and the close-ups look quite good when the faces are not bathed in the aforementioned gel lighting or flattered by smoke and steam diffusion, but I don't think too much DNR is responsible for keeping this film from looking like a studio pic from the era. No complaints about the DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 rendering of the Ultra Stereo track, but most of its dynamic elements are from the incidental music, some song cues, and the sound design of the effects setpieces rather than general atmosphere. I noticed no issues with the optional English subtitles (some of MPI's earlier DVDs had proofing and transcription errors). The disc opens with a nifty animated Gorgon Video logo (I haven't seen the tape release, but the Gorgon logo was not on the line's earlier titles).
The film is also accompanied by an audio commentary with director Michael Fischa (MY MOM'S A WEREWOLF) – via satellite in Austria – producer/second unit director Jamie Beardsley (MUNCHIES), and editor/sound designer Kewley (HARD ROCK NIGHTMARE). The commentary track actually isn't brimming over with facts about the film – see the documentary below for that – and it does fall back often on wisecracks but the affection the three have for each other, the film itself, and the cast members (some of which are no longer with us) makes it a pleasant listen. It is not until a half hour in that Beardsley discusses the origins of the project with a meeting Walter Shenson (A HARD DAY'S NIGHT) who promised that they would work on a project together, and the subsequent meeting with Maljack's Waleed Ali – who was interested in making a horror film – resulting in the pitch to do a "haunted health club" film. They also point out the props they contributed – including sports cars belonging to loved ones (and future exes) – as well as several art pieces designed by model-turned-jewelry designer Uschi Obermaier. Fischa does underline some of the plot points – like the bird's nest metaphor – but the documentary below is much more informative and comprehensive.
Fischa is absent from the Elijah Drenner documentary "An Exercise in Terror: The Making of DEATH SPA" (50:51), but it features the participation not only of Beardsley and Kewley, but also actors William Bumiller, Shari Shattuck, and Hank Cheyne, as well as writer Paradise, cinematographer Armanaki, art director Robert Schulenberg (EATING RAOUL), composer Peter Kaye, production coordinator David Reskin, and steadicam operator Elizabeth Ziegler (EYES WIDE SHUT). Beardsley discusses the origins of the project – for the first time here since she mentions the interviews in the commentary – with Shenson and Ali, but the documentary gives us more detail. Excerpts from Bartruff's 1983 first draft are shown with Paradise revealing that he found it lacking and rewrote it (with excerpts from the 1985 draft shown), while Armenaki reveals that he did a full rewrite as well (adding in the computer system aspect of the film). Schulenberg and Beardsley discuss how the budget did not allow for a high-tech, high-class look until Schulenberg decided to go with the Memphis style which drew from Art Deco and Art Nouveau but with an emphasis on geometrical shapes and bright colors over ornate patterns. Beardsley also discusses casting of the shower scene extras from a porn agency and the excessive amount of camera coverage for that sequence, but she also concedes to mistakes she made as a stressed out first time producer.
Bumiller recalls being self-conscious about viewing his performance while Shattuck reveals that her ability to pass as a twin sibling for the late Butrick had as much to do with her getting the part as her audition (she did not learn that her performance was redubbed to sound more ghostly until she saw the finished film), while Cheyne recalls working in a bar at the time and that the first person he was able to tell about getting the role in the film was customer Christopher Plummer (THE SOUND OF MUSIC). Kaye discusses his inexperience at the time and how an early Mac program allowed him to expertly time his cues but he also admits to "Mickey Mouse-ing" the score (that is, underlining virtually every movement with sound) and how his tracks were re-ordered, recut, and balanced during the film's year-long editing. Beardsley discusses Fischa's and Armenaki's visualization of the film's photography, including the TOUCH OF EVIL opening long take with Ziegler consulting Steadicam inventor Garrett Brown on how to achieve it (and taking the initiative to get the cherry picker needed for the crane opening). The featurette also includes some vintage behind the scenes video and photographs, and the affection for the film from the participants – who acknowledge that it's not a great film – but it is indeed unlike any other. The disc also includes a theatrical trailer (1:37) in anamorphic widescreen, as well as an upscaled vintage video trailer (2:13). Sadly, there is no WITCH BITCH trailer (although the alternate title card is on view in the documentary). (Eric Cotenas)
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