In honor of the Season of Terror, Comics Editor Kayleigh Hearn decided to share one of her favorite horror movies. Writer Robby Karrol put on his day-glo sweatband and leg warmers for a trip to Death Spa, the surreal and unbelievable tale of a ghost terrorizing the hottest new gym on the block. Jazzercise! Jazzercise for your life!
Kayleigh: I first discovered Death Spa through an Alamo Drafthouse Video Vortex screening; I took one look at the poster, with a muscle-bound hunk trapped in the gym from hell with a demonic extra from the “Physical” music video, and was there. 80s VHS horror movie box art can be infamously misleading, but when lightning struck the Starbody Health Spa in the opening seconds of the movie, neon lights fizzling out to spell D EATH SPA, I knew I was in good hands. Death Spa is a part of me now, I carry its memory forever. But what did you think?
Robby: To be honest, it feels like a fever dream. Given how many mediocre slasher movies the 80s gave us, I was a little anxious that this couldn’t live up to the box art. When was the last time anyone other than a completist wanted to watch Destroyer? But this delivers the strangeness that I always want from my 80s movies. When the movie decided to throw in a rough-edged parapsychic investigator (who packs a pistol and had been kicked out the seminary, to boot) into the mix, this movie completely won me over. Neon light malfunctions aside, what is your favorite moment?
Kayleigh: My favorite moments—the scenes that completely destroyed me when I saw this in a crowded theater—have to be the candlelight dinner where our hero feeds his blinded girlfriend a phallic piece of asparagus, and the scene in the Mardi Gras massacre where the doughy cop gets his throat torn out by a very fake re-animated barracuda (???). Death Spa is absolutely a movie where the director was like, “fuck it, we’re going for it.” There is enough plot in this movie for ten movies: our nominal hero Michael runs a spa that may be haunted by his dead wife; his vengeful brother-in-law runs the sophisticated computer system that might also be killing people; Michael’s business partners are conspiring to steal the spa/frame Michael for the murders; the aforementioned paranormal investigator is lurking around; and oh, there’s also a huge Mardi Gras party happening at the spa. Like, holy shit.
Robby: That moment when the sleazy lawyer said that under no circumstances could they shut down the computer system for the Mardi Gras party, I thought I knew what I was in for. Slowly escalating kills as people figure out something is wrong…and boy was I wrong. This movie has no interest in slow reveals or building tension. I said before that this movie felt like a fever dream, and I feel like that’s the best way to describe it. There’s a lot going on, and it’s never boring, but the tone veers all over the place and subplots appear and disappear at a rapid pace, like when you try to describe a disturbing dream to someone the next morning. It’s rare to find that sort of horrifying dream logic in a cheap slasher film, and I love it.
Kayleigh: Did any performances stand out for you? Death Spa has some horror/sci-fi bonafides, featuring Dawn of the Dead’s Ken Foree (wearing tiny shorts and Joseph’s Technicolor Dreamcoat), The Omega Man’s Rosalind Cash as the sergeant who gets the second best line in the movie (“Fuck this computer shit!”), and Star Trek II’s Merritt Butrick as David, computer hacker and vengeful twin. For me, I have to give it to Butrick, who delivers every line with withering, catty contempt. One of the few moments of pure logic in this fever dream of a movie is David pointing out that computers can’t control flying shower tiles.
Robby: Buttrick does a great job of pitching his performance to the material. And he manages to make his fight with ghostly sister Catherine for control of his personality more disturbing than I expected. Ken Foree was a delight (especially since *spoilers* they let him survive to the end). But the performances I enjoyed the most were the bit players, like the aforementioned parapsychic detective, or the random hardbody who says my favorite line in the movie, “I’m Beta. You’re VHS” to a rejected gym bunny right before getting killed. Heck, even the few times the kills are bland, the reactions save it. Everyone was earning their pay when their death scene came around. Is there anything we haven’t touched on that you want to highlight about this strange film?
Kayleigh: I have to spare a moment for the Death Spa itself, since I’d put it up there with other major horror movie landmarks like Hill House and the Monroeville Mall. It’s impossibly big and tacky—it’s a spa that has its own gym, Olympic swimming pool, a cafe, and tanning beds (you better believe a bikini-clad blonde is nearly turned to fried chicken) all in bright day-glo Starburst vomit colors. This is a movie so 80s the 80s couldn’t even contain it, and it had to be released in 1990. We’ve talked about the movie’s fever dream tone and its mix of gruesome violence and bizarre humor; do you think we’re meant to take Death Spa at face value as a horror movie, or was it a precursor to the wink-wink-we-know-it’s-bad tone of something like Sharknado? I admit I am wonderfully flabbergasted by this movie where the hero spends the third act in a harlequin costume and the “fabulous Death Spa dancers” get namedropped in the credits, but it can also be quite serious and dark. What did you think?
Robby: I hesitate to say it’s the kind of post-modern bad of a Sharknado or Leprechaun in the Hood. But I definitely think there is some camp in there, with the weirdly asexual flirting going on (you mentioned the asparagus, but all the women who hit on Michael seem very perfunctory about it), the evil demoness loving her flowing white nightgowns, and the way the partygoers at Mardi Gras are fine with people breaking through glass doors and fighting until some arbitrary point where they decide to panic. On the other other hand (maybe the one that gets caught in a possessed blender), this is also a movie that shows a woman pouring gasoline over herself and setting herself on fire. This movie not only has the letters in the sign spell out DEATH SPA at the beginning, but does the exact same thing at the very end! This doesn’t happen three times, which would follow the rules of comedy. It happens twice, which suggests they thought this was important. I can’t begin to fathom the mind that would make that choice. But then again, I didn’t make Death Spa.