For their second Blu-ray (and Blu-ray/DVD combo) release, exciting new exploitation company Vinegar Syndrome rescue MASSAGE PARLOR MURDERS (which some 42nd street wanderers might have caught under the title MASSAGE PARLOR HOOKERS) from the vaults.
When a psychopathic killer starts mutilating the staff of New York’s massage parlors, detectives Rizotti (George Spencer, IF YOU DON'T STOP IT... YOU'LL GO BLIND!!!) and O’Mara (John Moser) are on the case (particularly since Rizotti was more than a little friendly with the first victim). The killings get increasingly gruesome and the only clue they’ve got is a medallion worn by all of the victims, and its maker – a metaphysician (Brother Theodore as “Himself”) seems like the ideal suspect; however, he doesn’t exactly fit the vague description offered up by less-than-diligent massage parlor staff of an everyday middle-aged businessman (seemingly their average kind of client). In between puzzling out the killer’s motives, Rizotti bickers with his wife (Marlene Kallevig, MARLOWE) and O’Mara courts the first victim’s roommate Gwen (Sandra Peabody, LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT). Gwen claims her own massage work is strictly legit but is she telling the truth, and is that enough to save her from the clutches of the killer?
MASSAGE PARLOR MURDERS is more MARDI GRAS MASSACRE than NEW YORK RIPPER in execution (in terms of plotting and technique, or lack thereof). Despite the milieu, there isn’t much titillation. The masseuses strip but the camera doesn’t linger long enough on them alive or dead. A swimming pool orgy is listlessly shot and edited, only seeming to exist to add some skin and set up the film’s best sequence: a car chase between O’Mara – running out into the streets in only a towel and commandeering a cab – and yet another red herring creep (as in all movie car chases, a food vendor gets his stand decimated). Another odd extra skin sequence involves Rizotti and O’Mara spying on a session between a masseuse and a pudgy man dancing ballet in a leotard to Edvard Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King” from “Peer Gynt” (played solely for meager laughs, it of course compares poorly to the similarly-accompanied “Dance of the Seven Veils” in Ken Russell’s SALOME’S LAST DANCE). The investigation has little forward momentum between encounters with obvious red herring suspects, the most entertaining being Brother Theodore who appears to be improvising entirely (enough to push the short-fused Rizotti into another display of police brutality). Spencer overacts and Moser underacts, but the supporting cast is more interesting. Peabody – who previously appeared with Jordan in TEENAGE HITCHHIKERS – doesn’t have much screen time, but she’s likable by virtue of being one of the few female cast members her that are able to act (the usually good Jordan has absolutely no dialogue) and seeming nicer than Kallevig’s naggy wife character. Besides Brother Theodore, there’s also very recognizable character actor George Dzundza (BASIC INSTINCT) as “Mr. Creepy”, one of Rosie’s freelance tricks (and giving one of the better performances). Dzundza also served as the film’s assistant director (in fact, his assistant director credit appears under a still of him during the opening credits, while he is only credited as an actor in the end supporting cast listing). The masseuses include Anne Gaybis (BLACK SHAMPOO), who appears in wraparound sessions, and softcore/hardcore actress Chris Jordan (ABIGAIL LESLIE IS BACK IN TOWN) billed here as “Kathie Everett” (at the time she was married to porn star Eric Edwards aka “Rob Everett”) as the first victim Rosie. A third black detective is credited as being played by Leroy Basil Gray, a New York accountant who had been briefly married to singer Della Reese more than a decade before the film. Presumably some of the other supporting cast members were recruited by the director from the local theater scene (including one plainer-looking masseuse who has a monologue about her boyfriend's plans for a banana split).
The production history of the film seems to be a little hazy (Vinegar Syndrome’s disc cover cites the film’s release date as circa 1974), but Chris Poggiali does his usual detective work in the included liner notes booklet (as he had for Ballyhoo Pictures recent on-demand disc release of William Grefe’s rediscovered THE DEVIL’S SISTERS). The direction is jointly credited to Chester Fox and Alex Stevens. Fox, according to Poggiali, was a public relations rep for Broadway and off-Broadway plays who tried his hand at film at the end of the 1960s with a Marcel Marceau short called FIRT CLASS (which played during the intermission at Jefferson Airplane concerts before being appended to the end of a Czech film Fox acquired for distribution). He acquired the sole rites to film the “Match of the Century” between Boris Spassky and Bobby Fischer at the 1972 World chess Championship but was barred from filming by Fischer who resented the camera noise (and Fox would end up in litigation with him for the next few years). MASSAGE PARLOR MURDERS appears to have been his only feature (read the booklet for Fox’s subsequent spotty career).
The film was apparently first submitted to the MPAA in 1973, but Poggiali points out that the Times Square theater marquees visible in the additional footage suggest that it by Stevens was shot in 1974. Stevens was a prolific stuntman (he appears to have retired in 1997) who had donned Dick Smith’s werewolf make-up for the soap opera DARK SHADOWS and served as stunt coordinator on the show’s two feature film spinoffs. The stuntwork and coverage of the film’s car chase sequence and the film’s resolution suggest Stevens livens the film up considerably, but not all of what is believed to have been his footage necessarily results in a better film. The pool orgy scene – which sets up the car chase – is so raggedly edited with no explanation as to why O’Mara is there in the first place. There are only two actual brief shots to establish his presence; the disc’s included outtakes, however, include his arrival and reveal that he was meeting Gwen there (Peabody does not appear at all in the finished release version of this sequence). Another Stevens sequence follows O’Mara and Gwen around Times Square with conversation added in voice-over, possibly to break up the static nature of the other dialogue scenes as well as to mirror Rizotti’s own poorly-scripted or poorly-adlibbed stroll earlier in the film (the Rizotti sequence likely being part of Fox’s original shoot since the movie marquees in this sequence advertise INVASION OF THE BLOOD FARMERS, BLOOD OF DRACULA’S CASTLE, and Erwin C. Dietrich’s THE YOUNG SEDUCERS). The cinematography of New York sexploitation regular Victor Petrashevic (TWO GIRLS FOR A MADMAN) is rather perfunctory apart from some red gel lighting. No editor is credited, and the bulk of the film has the look of an assembly edit or something put together without proper coverage (production manager Helga Petrashevic worked continuity on a handful of New York sexploitation films as well as the upstate New York horror sleeper SILENT NIGHT, BLOODY NIGHT). A few close-ups seem are not held long enough and only seem to be there to break up the monotony of the long takes (as if the close-ups were shot at the end of rolls of film in the camera, or as if the non-editor did not have a sense of rhythm). Only the murders demonstrate a modicum of editing flair; but even that feels like guesswork.
Vinegar Syndrome’s BD25 and dual-layer DVD present the film in both its original 1974 cut (79:56) – not the 1973 MPAA submission by Fox – and the re-release version (73:18). The re-release version only differs from the original release by the removal of the six-and-a-half minute pre-credits sequence and the title change to MASSAGE PARLOR HOOKERS (and a trailer that suggested an innocuous sexploitation picture rather than a thriller); as such, the option to play the re-release version on the Blu-ray and DVD simply starts the feature on the second chapter with the opening credits rather than a separate encoding or the use of seamless branching (as such, it also lacks the MASSAGE PARLOR HOOKERS replacement title card). Considering how boring the prologue is (not really a teaser since nothing suspenseful happens until twelve-and-a-half minutes into the film, or six minutes into the re-release version), the film certainly plays better in its re-release cut. The 2K scan of the conformed camera negative has been digitally-cleaned up, but with a touch deft enough not to obliterate detail by attempting trying to smooth over and remove every trace of damage (the image also wobbles on a few occasions). The mono audio – mastered from 35mm optical tracks and encoded on both discs in Dolby Digital 2.0 – has a constant level of hiss, but it never really detracts.
As mentioned above, the film’s outtakes (7:50) include additional footage of the pool orgy – including O’Mara’s arrival, footage of Gwen, and one participant at half-maste – as well as two sets of takes of O’Mara and Gwen walking around Times Square. The footage is in condition comparable to the feature transfer. The Blu-ray and DVD also include the film’s original MASSAGE PARLOR MURDERS trailer (2:42), as well as the MASSAGE PARLOR HOOKERS re-release trailer (1:57) and a re-release radio spot (0:28). Besides Poggiali’s six-page liner notes booklet (which also includes a rundown of the film's various double and triple billings through Edward Montoro's Film Ventures International), Vinegar Syndrome’s Blu-ray/DVD combo case also encloses a miniature reproduction of the film’s lab card (as they did with THE LOST FILMS OF HERSCHELL GORDON LEWIS). While I personally would have thought MASSAGE PARLOR MURDERS more appropriate to one of Vinegar Syndrome’s “Drive-In Collection” DVD double-bills (all so far also derived from 2K masters), their high definition treatment of this film is a welcome follow-up to their premiere release (stay tuned for their next Blu-ray/DVD release: Nelson Lyon’s THE TELEPHONE BOOK in which THE WORKING GIRLS’ Sarah Kennedy “falls in love with the world’s greatest obscene phone call”). (Eric Cotenas)
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