Death Spa aka Witch Bitch (1989)

Death Spa

Director: Michael Fischa
R | Horror | 1h 28min

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Death Spa is a movie that’s been doing the rounds among VHS Revival readers recently. It was new to me, but the title alone was enough to make immediate comparisons to another movie, one that happens to be a particular favourite of mine in the realms of low-budget, slasher exploitation. I am of course referring to David A. Prior’s absurd, gym-based sleazefest Killer Workout aka Aerobicide, a film starring Deadly Prey, B-movie regular Ted Prior and a whole host of clueless douchebags looking to break into Hollywood along the most misguided of paths. The kind of cheapo VHS flick that comes with an undisclosed budget, Killer Workout served up a fast food brunch of blood, babes and MTV aerobics in a way that was ethically unconscionable and completely absurd.

Death Spa is another lost gem with an undisclosed budget. Producers clearly weren’t digging the whole girls in spandex/slasher concept as anything more than B-grade sleaze, though the aerobics fad had been around for so long by 1989 it was no longer such a novelty, and the same could be said of the slasher genre. But Death Spa is a different kind of slasher beyond its Spandex embellishments, leaning towards both the supernatural and the technological. It also has arguably the best alternate title this side of Howling II: Your Sister is a Werewolf in Witch Bitch, one made even more important by the movie’s incongruous poster design, a drab affair that does little to sell the film’s neon charms. It looks more like the cover of a second-rate fantasy novel than a promotional accompaniment for a gimmicky slasher. But don’t be fooled, because in many ways Death Spa outdoes its older sibling for sheer ridiculousness, and take it from me that is no mean feat.

Ken Foree stars in Saved by the Bell’s production of Aladdin.

By the time you’ve finished watching Death Spa you’ll feel like you were born wearing neon-tinted spectacles. Sometimes the screen glows with so many gaudy colours it threatens blindness as the Z-grade melodrama unravels somewhere beneath. Imagine an episode of Saved by the Bell with a dash of Dario Argento at his most colourful and cavalier and you’ll get as close as I can give you to a comparison. Thanks to a so-careful-its-laborious opening shot of the spa’s unfortunately lit logo, I suddenly imagined that Death Spa was going to be the demure younger sister of Killer Workout rather than another exercise in grainy trash, and to an extent it is, but it’s all fur coat and no knickers.

The two films have more in common than just setting. Obviously, there are fitness industry comparisons. There is also ample nudity, Death Spa somehow managing to usurp its older sibling in its ceaseless quest to titillate. There are nowhere near as many cleavage (and other delicate area) close-ups as there are in Killer Workout, but for the most part Death Spa doesn’t waste its time with such half-assed antics. It rams full-on nudity down our throats as if it’s on the verge of going out of fashion. Particularly pornographic is an early scene which sees a fully nude birdbrain unleashing mountains of flesh in a steam room, playing with beads of sweat in a way that’s borderline masturbatory (so that’s what women get up to in public gyms!). So brazen is Death Spa at flaunting nudity that the movie’s ludicrous shower scene used extras hired through a porn casting agency, and as is the case with everyone else in this movie, their appearance is touched by creative lunacy.

Mmm, something tells me there’s trouble afoot.

From the looks of things, director Fischa takes his aesthetic cue from the likes of Mario Bava and Dario Argento, but the underlying sleaze and vacuity either make such a venture redundant or oddly fascinating, depending on your personal predilection. Taking influence from German expressionist cinema and even early Disney, the likes of Argento would bathe their movies in swathes of primary colours as a way to disorientate and beguile, to coax us out of reality and into the realms of occult horror, and as in Argento’s Suspiria colour seems to represent the presence of a supernatural evil lurking somewhere in the corridors of Starbody Health Spa. Those movies were often light on plot and characterisation too, making little sense from a narrative perspective, but while they were peripheral to movies which excelled in artistic endeavour, Death Spa is a glorified soap opera buoyed by a series of ludicrous death sequences, and when I say ludicrous I’m not fucking around.

Some of the sets are just priceless. Death Spa looks something like an episode of ’90s sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel Air — even more so since one of the movie’s vacuous LA hotties is played by Karyn Parsons, who gives what is basically an audition for the role of spoilt Banks daughter Hilary as a neon slave to male sexuality. Other notable faces come in the form of Dawn of the Dead‘s Ken Foree doing anything for a pay cheque and Chelsea Field, an actress whose career had clearly plummeted in the two years since starring as Teela in Cannon flop Masters of the Universe. Death Spa would also be the last movie to feature Star Trek regular Merritt Butrick before his tragic death from complications relating to AIDS at 29.

The dangers of sherbet fizz.

Compared to Killer Workout, a movie that smacks of late-80s narcotics burnout, Death Spa is rich and diverse, thanks mostly to its cocaine nights colour palette, but also because of its technical zest. It may be completely misguided, but in this regard Killer Workout is barely a movie. It’s just a bunch of scenes thrown haphazardly together with the most basic direction imaginable. Death Spa director Michael Fischa actually has something of an eye. There are plenty of bog-standard scenes produced with all the creativity of a daytime soap opera, but he’s clearly having fun shooting this movie. The camerawork is amateur yet playful, with some rather interesting compositions, a few fairly accomplished slasher set-pieces, and even a couple of Flashdance pop video segments at a time when the MTV/film hybrid was still lingering, though the absurdity of the material never allows it to rise above the level of fascinating dreck.

Death Spa begins with a Chopping Mall style quirk as a trendy Los Angeles health club succumbs to the usual flash of neon electricity, an event which seems to be the trigger for the movie’s supernatural madness — that, or its only purpose is to change the gym’s sign from ‘Starbody Health Spa’ to ‘      d   ea th Spa’. You see what they did there?

It’s rather difficult to give you a true understanding of just how crazy this movie is without giving away the whole plot, but events begin with a series of unexplained deaths and accidents, beginning with a sauna mishap which sees the ludicrously gorgeous Laura (Brenda Bakke) burned from head-to-toe by ‘chlorine vapour’. The fact that she doesn’t seem to have even the mildest burns following the accident should come as no surprise given the movie’s budget, though she does wear bandages over her eyes for the entire movie, an image which gets more hilarious with each passing scene. At one point she blindly performs fellatio on a giant piece of asparagus after being hand-fed by lover and Starbody owner Michael, who is never convincing in the role, despite the fact he was actually a real-life gym owner. Presumably they were looking for authenticity anywhere they could find it.

Asparagus was a real turn-on.

Michael, Marvin (Ken Foree) and a duo of vacuous cops suspect David is behind the spate of accidents. David is the former brother-in-law of Michael, whose wife died after setting herself on fire while pregnant out of jealousy for her husband’s supposedly salacious ways. This makes sense, since David oozes malice with such transparency it may as well be evidence. He also controls the film’s crappy cardboard set with a humongous super computer, though events lead you to believe there’s something else going on, that David may not be acting alone, or even be responsible for anything in a literal sense. Confused yet? Give it time, you will be. At one point, somebody plays a practical joke with what looks like a live human embryo, though Michael seems to think it’s a bird. I don’t know. I’ll leave that one for you to decide.

The amount of craziness served up is truly breathtaking. For one thing, almost the entire movie is set in a gym whose members never seem to leave, throwing late-night soirées and pulling racy all-nighters like they’re in a nightclub-come-brothel. I’m not really a gym person, but this seems like an unlikely venue for drunken frolics, especially with all the murder and mayhem going on around them. Surely it would just be simpler to close down the spa until all this murder lark blows over.

Such oversights are ten to a penny, but they don’t even begin to explain the madness. Bizarre paranormal investigators? Check. Exploding women? Check. Killer blenders? Supernatural, Carrie style massacres? Undead witch/werewolves rising from the ashes with vengeance on the mind? Check, check and double check. Still don’t want to see this film? If the answer is No, shame on you.

If You Go Down to the Gym Today…

If you received a letter requesting you meet someone in the dank bowels of a gym’s boiler room for a little titillation, would you consider that it was maybe a prank, perhaps even an elaborate set-up for something far less forgivable? Unfortunately, the lovelorn Linda has no such foresight, and after heading there to meet the always amorous Michael, she’s promptly overcome by a downpour of chemical acid, her body slowly dissolving like an Alka-Seltzer, so slow that her deliquescing corpse still shows signs of life days later when an unlucky chap discovers the whole mess — a still-beating heart accompanied by a rib cage and barely audible whimpers of pain. At least her vocal cords are still intact!

Get Over It!

While it would be easy, and wrong of me, to choose Death Spa‘s absurd twist as the standout moment in a film of such batshit proportions, or even a scene in which a frozen fish comes to life and savages the spa’s resident detective, I found an interaction between David and a kidnapped Laura rather priceless.

Having moved in with widower Michael, a still-bandaged Laura is confronted by David, who openly assumes that Michael must feel weird moving her in so soon after the death of his wife (David’s twin sister).

Not Laura, who must have an incredible capacity for dealing with loss, glibly replying, “David, wasn’t that over a year ago?”

Empathetic enough for you?

Choice Dialogue

Having requested an item that belong to the deceased wife of health club owner Michael, paranormal investigator Dr. Lido Moray hovers a spurious device above it and begins to spell out out the woman’s demise in no uncertain terms.

Dr. Lido Moray: Ah, Catherine! Awww, and a beautiful marriage it was too…until…she went into labour with your child and something happened to her lower spine…a cripple growing progressively more bitter and depressed. [Looks up at Michael accusingly] Jealous too…of you?

Michael: Without justification. After she lost the baby, I couldn’t reason with her.

Dr. Lido Moray: [once again staring off as the image becomes clear] And then one day…she went into the garden…doused herself with gasoline and set herself on fire. [staring hard at Michael] burnt to unrecognisable ashes.

Say it how it is, doc.

A hodgepodge of outrageous ideas, extravagantly cheap deaths and absurd interactions, how can I not give this movie full marks? It may have the production values of an 80s Australian teen drama, but you’ll never be less than gobsmacked by the neon-drenched madness that is Death Spa. This is particularly true during the film’s finale, an insane carnival of destruction where the movie really loses its shit. In fact, I’m off for a schvitz. I think I’ve earned it.

Edison Smith

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