DVDanger: Death Rattle Shakes

A case of "Rigor Mortis," and we pay our dues at the 'Death Spa'

Death Spa. Exactly as cheesy as you'd expect. (Image courtesy of Gorgon Video)

You! I want to take you to a Death Spa! I want to take you to a death spa! I want to take you to a death spa, death spa, death spa!

All due apologies to Electric Six (eh, I'm sure they'll survive) but the latest release from Gorgon Video seems right up their street.

Open: Crane shot on a black cityscape. Odd stretches of blown-out neon pepper the night. A woman dances inside the studio, clearly to high-octane music. However, the audience hears an orchestra. Could they not afford the rights to the disco track?

Yes, we're in 1989 random California, in the realm of Skinemax frighteners. Death Spa is memorable as the world's most famous, although not only, aerobics horror. So there is a lot of Lycra, overly snug man shorts, pastel colors, and people who look far too excited about buying protein powder.

Unfortunately, this particular spa is … haunted! And it's run by a computer. So, basically, the best bits of '80s protocyberhorror EvilSpeak (sans Clint Howard) mixed with the worst bit of John Travolta's tedious dancercise atrocity Perfect. Which, considering the genre of aerobics horror is limited to this and Killer Workout (aka Aerobi-cide), makes you wonder why Hollywood passed up on a clearly lucrative niche genre.

Director Michael Fischa (also culpable for parts of the Deadtime Stories anthology franchise and My Mom's a Werewolf) isn't helped by having the least charismatic leading man in a genre that defined cardboard acting. William Bumiller (Guiding Light) is spa owner Michael who, divides his time between a: ogling every woman who wanders through frame, b: endless devotion to his new girlfriend Laura (Brenda Bakke), c: looking soulfully/constipatedly into the middle distance, mulling his ex-wife who killed herself by self-immolation, and d: wondering exactly how many people can die in hilarious work-out equipment-related deaths before his business partners.

How dumb are they? This is like putting Jaws in a bath tub and telling customers its fine to get a shower in there.

Meanwhile, Michael struggles under the weight of his own mullet. "My club's being sabotaged, Laura's blinded, and my lawyer is wearing the cutest shorts I've ever seen," he intones with a pensive ire that comes across as mild concussion.

That said, Death Spa has the kind of car crash, straight-to-video charm that defined the era, a couple of impressively silly and gruesome deaths (including blendercide and flying frozen eel,) plus one of the all-time great B-movie character actors/perennial best friends Ken Foree (Dawn of the Dead or, for you youngsters, Roger Rockmore in Kenan and Kel.) It's also sadly the final performance of Merritt Butrick: Best known as Kirk's illegitimate son in Star Treks II and III, he chews up some impressive scenery as William's brother-in-law David, his dead wife's identical twin and also the programmer of the maniac system and possible conduit to … the beeeeeyyyyyooond. Sorry, there's also a very silly parapsychologist, who looks more like an accountant that a Ghostbuster, but suffers one of the most ludicrous and entertaining deaths in the history of schlock.

Before they were A-listers: Obscure slasher outing The Final Terror is more Southern Comfort than Sleepaway Camp (Image courtesy of Scream! Factory)

Death Spa has ended up as a minor point of fascination for '80s horror fans. However, The Final Terror (Scream! Factory) doesn't have that cult cachet. It never did, being left for two years on the shelf after completion and then sneaking out in 1983. It only got a release then because its teen cast had a run of high profile roles (Rachel Ward in The Thorn Birds, Daryl Hannah post-Blade Runner, and Adrian Zmed in Grease 2. Hey, high profile doesn't necessarily mean great.)

It's a pretty conventional slasher set-up: Teens in the woods, mysterious killer (whose identity is pretty heavily telegraphed early on) and just enough mayhem to keep the audiences awake.

But where The Final Terror digresses from the formula established by its peers like The Burning, Sleepaway Camp and, of course, Friday the 13th, is that it doesn't really work like a slasher film. It has more of the feel of a slow, creeping, survival thriller, like Deliverance with a Cali accent.

Filmed in the Redwood forests of Northern California, overcast with constant drizzle and a miasma gray sky, The Final Terror doesn't go heavy on exposition. There's a busload of boys, seemingly (but never explicitly) low grade offenders on an outward bound, "see the wilderness, change your life" kind of camping trip. Then there's a separate group of girls, including some from England, who are on an expensive excursion. When they meet, there's a little teen sexual frisson, but it's really their adult supervisors who have ensured these disparate groups meet up. And then, in typical woodland slasher fashion, bodies start dropping and people start disappearing.

There's a hint at the killer's identity from the creepy Eggar (an almost unrecognizable Joe Pantoliano), but the kids aren't really that bothered. They just hunker down into survival mode, quickly realizing that they're not just facing the standard smarter-than-thou murderer or bloodcrazed killer. Instead, their nemesis is something/one much more at home in this nature-red-in-tooth-and-claw environment than they are.

Director Andrew Davis, who would later go on to massive success with The Fugitive and Under Seige, clearly channels his inner Walter Hill here, Southern Comfort style. There's an almost improvised, naturalistic style to the kids, and his calm, dour lens makes the odd bursts of blood and terror – a severed wolf's head, a blade across the spine – less like a jump scare and more of a moment of creeping nausea. He concentrates on the reaction to a death more than the act itself, which is rare restraint in that era. However, it pays off in little moments, like the kids frantically throwing a tarpaulin over a corpse - part panic, part half-remembered funeral ceremony. There's nothing new here in the narrative, or even necessarily the execution, but it's how Davis frames it that makes this a mystery, not a gore fest. If any slasher is due at least a partial reappraisal, after years in the doldrums, this could be it.

Hong Kong horror gets a sense of doom in Rigor Mortis (Image courtesy of Well Go USA)

Speaking of an unusual take on a recognizable form, Rigor Mortis (Well Go) feels like Kung Fu Hustle's sinister cousin. Fading actor Chin Siu-Ho (played by actual actor Chin Siu-Ho) moves into a dilapidated housing complex. The tenants seem nice enough, even if they seem to have some odd habits. The nearest thing to a community leader is Yau (Anthony Chan), who runs the restaurant downstairs, and serves the same meals, to the same customers, in the same seats, at the same time every day. Then there's Gau (Paul Chung), the building's resident priest, who seems to have a little too much of an interest in the dark arts.

Juno Mak (the tortured protagonist Kit in the disturbing yet touching Revenge: A Love Story makes his highly impressive directorial debut here, evading all the traps that make so many Asian ghost stories seem chintzy or just plain funny. The truth is, the Jiangshi or hopping vampire myth has often seemed a little hilarious to Occidental audiences – not least because classics of the genre, like Encounters of the Spooky Kind and Mr. vampire were straight-out horror comedies. Mak restores the sense of supernatural malice the legend deserves, while giving a well-deserved casting nod to the originals, in which both Chin and Chan appeared.

The big and controversial difference between this and most of the rest of the Hong Kong horror output is the presence of Takashi Shimizu, creator of the Ju-on and The Grudge franchises. There's been a strong reaction in some places to his presence, and there are undoubtedly some of his trademarks here – the low, burning sense of terror, the inevitable long-haired ghosts, a terrible trauma that plagues a house.

But then putting any failure or success on Shimizu sells Mak short as a director. He brings an eerie evolution to the traditional tropes, and makes Chinese demons seems truly frightening. Plus, he's a great visual director, avoiding the shambling silliness that sometimes plagues the genre, and instead bringing an often breathtaking and kinetic fury to the scenes as Yau, Gau and Chin attempt to put the forces of evil back in the bottle. He drains the color out of the building, casting it in a supersaturated grey (if there is such a thing) and dropping in only hints and suggestions of blood reds and ember golds. He even makes the hopping in the hopping vampire seem malicious.

That's where a few other critics have fallen out of love with this film: It's not big on straight-ahead fear. Well, so it's short on jump scares, so what? Instead, Mak concentrates on the idea that his spirits are a lot like his living characters – isolated, desperate for companionship, terrified of loss, but incapable of true connection. Yau's diner is the last place of respite, and beyond its dingy walls, the residents roam in quiet desperation, whether it's young mother Yeung Feng (Kara Hui) hiding personal, despairing secrets, or Auntie Mui (Paw Hee-ching) trying to hang on to the last physical memento of her lost husband. This isn't a horror, per se, but like Roger Corman's The Pit and the Pendulum, a tale of broken souls in a supernatural cauldron.

Mysterious files in a creepy, abandoned hospital? That can't be a bad sign. SX_Tape hits all the haunted house found footage standards. (Image courtesy of Well Go USA)

A very different, and far less stylized, trip into the supernatural dark comes with SX_Tape (Well Go), a lo-fi found footage experience in the obvious footprints of the VHS franchise (V/H/S, V/H/S/2, and the upcoming V/H/S: Viral.)

Jill (Caitlyn Folley of the madcap The FP) and her boyfriend Adam (Ian Duncan) are a pair of standard issue LA wannabe Bohemian artists. She's a pretty talented water color painter (reminiscent of comic iconoclast David Mack), while Adam spends all his time following her around with a camera - in part so he can chronicle her work, and in part so he can finally convince her to record a sex tape.

That explains why the first 20 minutes is basically him trying to convince her to get naked, and then them actually getting naked (in a relatively non-explicit way.) He then surprises her with the suggestion of using an abandoned hospital for an art show. They go to check it out, and he finds a bed with straps on it. Of course, considering that there is blood, decay, and a history of off-the-books medical procedures going on in its rooms, that most people would think it was a bad idea to leave anyone by themselves. So when Jill ends up strapped down, is anyone surprised when something comes a-crawling?

SX_Tape still thinks that it's enough to have a weird location, a charismatic lead to stick in front of the lens all the time, some loud noises, and a lot of walking through enclosed spaces. Yes, the V/H/S films do that some times, but then their stories are only 15 minutes long. SX_Tape feels every second of its 85 minutes, and the only reason it doesn't feel longer is Folley, who adds believability to Jill's increasingly erratic behavior.

It's not that it does any of the cheapo found footage standards badly. As an example of the super-cheapo end of the genre, it's OK. But when there's gonzo fun like Frankenstein's Army, or super-aspirational, micro-budget fun like Afflicted (out this week from Sony) pushing the genre, why stay in the middle of an over-traveled road?

Afflicted (Sony), Rigor Mortis (Well Go), The Final Terror (Scream! Factory) and Death Spa (Gorgon Video) are all available now.

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DVD Watch, DVDanger, Scream! Factory, Shout! Factory, Well Go USA, Gorgon Video, Sony, Death Spa, SX_Tape, Afflicted, Rigor Mortis, The Final Terror, Juno Mak, Takashi Shimizu, Caitlyn Folley, Found Footage, Hopping Vampires

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