Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Blu-ray Review: DEATH SPA (1989) [MPI / Gorgon Video]

Death Spa (1989)

Buy the Blu-ray/DVD

The Movie

Fitness and health clubs are ubiquitous in today’s culture, so for the younger crowd, it might seem strange that they were a bit of an oddity at one time. Our fitness-obsessed society has come to accept protein shakes, juice bars, tanning and the like, but in the 1980s, the industry was really just starting to experience a boom and come into mass acceptance. Like every other aspect of the 1980s, the gym scene of that time was also full of excess. DEATH SPA, the first Blu-ray release from the re-launched version of 80s-Horror staple Gorgon Video, is a direct result of that excess, and it’s also a fun, cheesy watch.

The plot of the film is just as crazy as it sounds:
The new fitness club in town has everything a health nut could ever want: a variety of workout machines, classes taught by friendly (and frisky) instructors, and a state-of-the-art computer control system for maximum client comfort. Unfortunately, it's also possessed by the evil spirit of the owner's dead wife, and before long every dumbbell, leg press and rowing machine becomes a deadly weapon for her to enact bloody vengeance on the club's beautiful members.
As expected, there is a lot of 80s sensibility on display in DEATH SPA. The film was shot in the latter part of the 80s and released in 1989, so the production design of the club and the styles of the clothing feature a lot of neon color. Short shorts, spandex, sweatbands, and tank tops abound; but let’s face it, horror fans are more interested in the gore and nudity – both of which are also prominent in DEATH SPA. In fact, the movie’s violence led it to be cut quite a bit during its initial release, and seeing it uncut – as it is presented here – makes it hard to imagine exactly how the film would play in a trimmed-down state.

Simply put, DEATH SPA thrives on the gooey stuff. It predates the rampant use of CGI, so everything is practical here, and for the most part, it looks great. Sure, some of it is plain goofy, and not every kill is super graphic, but this is certainly not the kind of movie we would get if DEATH SPA were made today. Something about the mixture of music, neon, and violence just makes the movie fun. If DEATH SPA were made today, it would probably go the “gritty, realistic” route, which would somehow be even more absurd, and a lot less entertaining.

There’s also an ample amount of sex and nudity in DEATH SPA. The camera often lingers on shots of women in the shower, sauna, etc. Even by 80s “slasher” standards, it’s pretty copious. Apparently, there was a casting call to the porn industry at one point, and it’s pretty obvious why. But, hey, I’m not complaining… and nothing is honestly that graphic. It sure is pretty to look at though.

As for the rest – acting, writing, etc – you get what you expect. There are some very choice lines of dialog that literally had me laughing out loud, and a lot of the actors seem to be dialed up to 11, but that’s the kind of thing that I don’t care about when a film is as entertaining as DEATH SPA.

Fans of 1980s horror will find a lot to like about DEATH SPA. It’s certainly a movie that benefits from its aesthetics and its excesses, and I can’t imagine how it would play in a truncated form. Luckily, MPI/Gorgon have given us the original, fully uncut version here, and it’s definitely a movie that I think horror fans should check out.

Movie Score


The Blu-ray

MPI/Gorgon have packaged DEATH SPA in a 2-disc edition that includes both a Blu-ray and DVD copy of the film. The artwork is the original key poster art, and it looks great here. There are also some nice, newly-produced special features on the disc.

Video Quality (3.5/5)

DEATH SPA was a late 1980s film done on the cheap, so I imagine it was never the sharpest of films in terms of image quality. However, the new 2K remaster on this Blu-ray still feels a bit soft at times. There are also some dirt and debris present throughout; mostly in what I assume to be the previously cut scenes. I’m okay with all of this, but I do wonder why they chose to use a BD-25 disc here, when the AVC-encoded image would have probably benefitted more from a higher bitrate. Regardless, this is the best that DEATH SPA has ever looked on home video, and it’s a great first effort for Gorgon’s new relaunch.

Audio Quality (4/5)

DEATH SPA’s audio mix was originally presented in Mono, which was the standard for the time it was produced. The DTS-HD Master Audio track included here is a Mono 2.0 mix, and it sounds great. The dialog is clear, things are well-balanced, and the range is pretty damn impressive. A very solid audio track, overall.

Extra Features (4/5)

MPI/Gorgon have included the standard trailers (including both Theatrical and Home Video) for DEATH SPA, along with two newly-produced special features: An audio commentary and a making-of Documentary.

  • Commentary with Director Michael Fischa, Producer Jamie Beardsley and Editor Michael Kewley: This new audio commentary with was recorded specifically for this Blu-ray release, with all of the participants not having watched the movie for about 25 years. As such, while it is certainly engaging, it doesn’t contain as much technical detail about the film as some fans may want. Still, it’s a fun listen, and it’s nice to hear the group talk about their personal experiences in Hollywood at the time that DEATH SPA was made in an open and candid fashion.
  • An Exercise In Terror - The Making Of Death Spa (51 min): This new making-of documentary, directed by Elijah Drenner (AMERICAN GRINDHOUSE), is easily the best special feature on the disc. While it’s not quite feature-length, the piece is very well made and covers the entire production period of the film. Everything from the film’s origins to its release is covered here in a way that flows very organically and never gets dull. Drenner managed to wrangle interviews with a ton of the film’s major participants, including Producers Beardsley and Kewley, cinematographer Arledge "Ace" Armenaki, composer Peter Kaye, production designer Robert Shulenberg, co-writer Mitch Paradise, production coordinator David Reskin and actors William Bumiller, Hank Cheyne, Shari Shattuck and Elizabeth Ziegler, and all of them are entertaining to listen to. Honestly, I could have watched another hour of this and still probably wanted more. If this is the kind of thing that the new Gorgon releases are going to include, then I can’t wait to see what we get from them next!
  • Trailers: Both the original theatrical trailer and the longer trailer from the initial home video release of DEATH SPA are included here.

Final Thoughts

DEATH SPA is not what many would consider a “Horror Classic,” but it is a film with a cult following of devoted fans who will likely be very pleased with MPI/Gorgon’s treatment of the film on this Blu-ray release. While this new remaster isn’t exactly stunning, it still looks very good; especially considering the age and obscurity of the original negative. The disc’s audio is great and does a wonderful job staying true to what audiences would have heard in a theater when DEATH SPA was first released. All of the excised gore and nudity has been restored here, and Gorgon has done a great job providing quality extras. All in all, DEATH SPA is a Blu-ray that horror fans will want to add to their collection; even if they have yet to experience the film for themselves.

Highly Recommended!

Blu-ray Score



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