Death Spa (1989)

Within the opening two minutes of Death Spa I was already aware that I was in the presence of trash cinema greatness. The only other film I had previously seen from director Michael Fischer was the uninspired Teen Wolf knockoff My Mom’s a Werewolf (one of three releases he completed in ’89, along with something titled Crack House), so I didn’t expect to fall in love here so easily. Everything there is to love about this deranged supernatural horror is succinctly represented in the opening credits, though, immediately setting a very high expectation for over-the-top schlock being married to intense attention to craft, a dynamic I was delighted to discover the film lives up to. Death Spa is essentially what would happen if Chopping Mall were given the full arthouse, Suspiria treatment, the exact low premise/high execution dichotomy I look for in all my genre cinema. The film opens with an exterior shot of a Los Angeles gym with a lit neon sign that reads “Starbody Health Spa.” Lightning strikes the sign, leaving only the title “d ea th Spa” lit as the camera travels into the cursed building in an ominous tracking shot. Spooky synths & neon lights overwhelm the senses as the camera finds the only soul alive in the gym, a woman dancing alone to rhythmic music that we cannot hear. One gratuitous nudity scene later and she’s being cooked alive by a sauna gone haywire, activated by an off-screen killer. It’s immediately apparent in this opening sequence that Death Spa is exploitative sleaze. It’s also just as apparent that it’s fine art worthy of any pop culture museum that would house it.

The gym is a creepy place, presumably doubly so for women who’re working out alone after hours. Early in its runtime, Death Spa appears to be a shrewd exploration of that common fear, exploiting the vulnerability of publicly navigating a space designed to intensively focus on the human body among a wealth of potentially dangerous strangers. The camera takes on the first-person POV of a slasher film or a giallo, stalking vulnerable women in its neon & spandex health club setting. It even teases potential personal & financial reasons why several suspects would be committing the rampant murders (framed as accidental deaths) that start plaguing the gym. I was totally onboard with the grounded killer-on-the-loose horror teased in Death Spa’s earliest motions, but even more pleased by the deranged absurdity that unfolded instead. It turns out Death Spa isn’t about a psychopathic killer at all, but rather one of my very favorite genre film subjects: Evil Technology. In the film, a vengeful ghost hacks the computer systems of automated gym equipment as a means of real-world vengeance. This is more of a haunted house movie than a slasher, except that the house in question is a health spa with very specific methods for causing lethal damage: rogue weightlifting machines, loose diving boards, flying shower tiles, the aforementioned sauna steam, etc. It even telegraphs a Chekov’s blender gag at the gym’s smoothie bar later echoed in one of my most beloved Evil Technology horrors: Unfriended. There’s very little thought given to the inherent vulnerability of gymnasiums & voyeurism, something that plays like an afterthought at best in the movie’s true mission statement of staging a supernatural horror at a novelty fad location specific to its era. Instead of playing off real-world dread or having its characters at least figure out that a gym with lethally faulty equipment might not be worth their patronage, the movie instead gradually intensifies its computer-ghost mayhem as it builds to a climactic event where many patrons can be locked inside & slaughtered at once: a “Mardi Gras” costume party. In Los Angeles. At a health spa. At night. Insane, but adorably so.

In addition to the lunacy of a ghost hacking automated gym equipment, Death Spa also chooses to reveal the identity of the undead spirit/real world terror through a recurring nightmare of a disabled woman on fire, adding to the film’s menacingly surreal vibe. That nightmare logic is matched by overactive camera work that puts much more care into its movement, angles, and lighting than what’s typically afforded trash cinema of this caliber. That high art cinematography clashes harshly with the bargain bin quality of acting on-hand, with cult cinema vet Ken Foree standing out as the only notable performer. The spooky synth soundtrack also occasionally gives way to an incredibly misguided mouth harp sound effect, turning potentially effective scare scenes into total jokes. While the cast & the soundtrack occasionally show the seams of Death Spa’s budget, though, the film’s commitment to practical gore effects & the sheer lunacy of its plot is more than enough to carry it through. When the ghost hacks a shower head or a blender or romantically whispers to their victim, “Come with me into the inferno. Let’s die together and live forever in Hell,” it’s all but impossible to resist Death Spa’s delirious, over-the-top charms. It didn’t take much for the movie to win me over as an instant fan. Its swirling mix of synths, neon, and self-amused gore was more than enough to steal my trash-gobbling heart at first sight. The true joy of Death Spa, though, is that its cheap thrills don’t stop there. The movie pushes its evil health spa premise to the most ridiculous extreme it can manage on a straight-to-VHS 80s budget, a dedication in effort & craft I wish Fischer had also poured into My Mom’s a Werewolf. In fact, all movies in all genres could stand to be a little more like the heightened absurdity achieved in Death Spa, not just the ones about health craze fads & pissed-off computer-ghosts.

-Brandon Ledet

My Mom’s a Werewolf (1989)

The way I Was a Teenage Werewolf’s influence has trickled down throughout genre cinema is a fascinating thing to track. Both the teen horror genre and the term “teenager” itself were relatively new concepts when that landmark feature arrived in 1957 and it was the first film to truly make something substantial of that cultural shift. In most teen-marketed sci-fi & horror films of the drive-in era, young audiences watched their peers flee in terror from adult or alien monsters. I Was a Teenage Werewolf changed the game by making the teenagers themselves the monsters. It was the first film to metaphorically connect creature feature transformations into heinous, violent monstrosities to the hormonal powder keg of puberty, something that’s been exhaustively explored by countless horror pictures in the decades since. The most common descendant of that device is the modern teen-girl transformation horror, where young women transform into uncanny beasts immediately following their first menstruation: Ginger Snaps, Teeth, Raw, Blue My Mind, etc. Other examples of the film’s descendants don’t even bother to gender-swap or shift the context of the film at all, functioning almost as straight-up remakes: Teen Wolf, Cursed, I Was a Teenage Frankenstein, etc. My Mom’s a Werewolf is a wrung even lower on the I Was a Teenage Werewolf devotee ladder. Not only does the film ruin the puberty metaphor by reverting the premise back to the monstrous adults of the 1950s, it’s also a blatant knockoff of the 1980s Teen Wolf franchise—essentially a copy of a copy. The same could also be said of the other notable, femme Teen Wolf knockoff Teen Witch, but that film had a delirious sense of Reagan Era absurdity & a sugary onslaught of MTV-inspired musical numbers. My Mom’s a Werewolf can’t compete with that, nor does it even try to.

As fascinated as I am with I Was a Teenage Werewolf’s influence on the horror genre, My Mom’s a Werewolf would have been much better served by dropping the teenager pretense entirely. The teen daughter indicated by the title is mostly present as an audience surrogate, spying in on a parent’s storyline that doesn’t particularly need her POV. The film does find an interesting angle by making the brat & her cash-starved bestie out to be horror nerds who pour over every detail of Fangoria magazine & attend dingy genre film conventions for weekend fun. It’s cool to see female characters occupying that archetype, as the 1980s (if not the 2010s, really) considered that kind of fandom to be strictly boys’ stuff, but they’re mostly present as observers & a distraction. The true center of the story is an overworked suburban mother with an emotionally distant husband & a pain-the-the ass kid. Ignored & taken for granted by her own family, she finds herself being wooed by a creepy pet shop owner who lavishes her with praise & kisses on the hand, when all she wanted was to purchase a flea collar for the family dog. Coerced partly through hypnotism and partly through her unaccommodated housewife libido, she flirts with the idea of having an affair with this creep while her daughter covertly spies on her from a distance. This is abruptly halted when the pet shop creep bites her on the toe (which, in a visual gag, is employed as a euphemism for cunnilingus), beginning her transition into a shapeshifting momwolf. It’s a very long journey until she’s a full-blown lycanthrope, though. Most of her symptoms surface as increased horniness, half-hearted nightmares, and a frequent need to shave her now-hirsute (hersute?) legs, making it a very long road to her werewolf form’s appearance at the climax. Just as much as it’s a letdown that her transformation is framed through her teen brat daughter’s POV, her werewolf form also can’t help but be a letdown when it’s finally revealed, as it’s a no-effort rubber mask Halloween costume with some mom clothes draped on top.

If My Mom’s a Werewolf holds any fascination on its own merits outside its novelty as a knockoff of a more popular I Was a Teenage Werewolf knockoff, it’s in its depiction of a middle-aged woman’s sexual awakening. A modern remake of this premise would have rich metaphorical material to work with as an exploration of an overworked, overlooked suburban wife rediscovering her body & her libido through a werewolf transformation, an entirely different angle on the conceit than the teen puberty horror we’re used to seeing. As is, the film can be frequently amusing in the way it mixes blatant sex jokes & pantomimed cunnilingus (both in the toe-biting scene & in a separate hand-licking exchange) in what otherwise feels like a kids’ movie. When the husband affectionately refers to his wife as his “little bran muffin,” she retorts, “Your little bran muffin misses your big cucumber.” When she later visits a dentist to file down her new werewolf fangs, he asks in heavy breaths, “Are you here for a drilling or a filling?” The film is not subtle. Everyone in My Mom’s a Werewolf is horny as heck except the one person who’s supposed to be fucking the momwolf (her husband) and their sex-neg daughter who disapproves of her newfound libido from the shadows.

This isn’t supposed to be a comedic softcore picture about a lonely, adulterous, housewife, though. The title promises some werewolf action the budget can’t convincingly muster, leaving My Mom’s a Werewolf a terrible movie with a great concept/poster. Sometimes the film’s cheapness can be adorable, including absolute garbage titles like Galaxina & Deathrow Gameshow in its teen nerds’ horror fandom & achieving a bargain bin bastardization of Sirk in its blatantly artificial suburban exteriors. Mostly, though, the absence of a legitimate budget is huge hindrance. A psychic’s palm-reading business is staged as a loose collection of scarves in an otherwise empty room. The only performers of note are last-second afterthought cameos from Kimmy Robertson & Marcia Wallace (who also had a small role in Teen Witch that same year). The 60s AM radio gem “Li’l Red Riding Hood” must’ve been the most expensive thing they sprung for, given how many times it repeats on the soundtrack. Most damning, though, is the rubber mask Halloween costume effects for the titular werewolf, which are just as cheap as they are lazy. To be more than a Teen Wolf knockoff curio, the film really needed to do a better job by its titular momwolf—by design, by POV, by everything really. Momwolves deserve a better movie. Teen-wolf daughters (and sons) have already had theirs many times over.

-Brandon Ledet