Bad Horror Gone Good: 976-EVIL, Blades, and Death Spa
What even is a “good” horror movie? When it’s scary? Eh. When they call it “elevated” horror? Blegh. When the minimum requirement of on-screen gore is met? Maybe if you’re 12. Webster's dictionary describes a horror movie as: “the process of removing weeds from one's garden.” What I’m saying is that I don’t have an answer here. The delineation between good and bad movies is vague as is, never mind horror, a genre that waffles back and forth between “fuck the police!” and “please notice me!” The way I see it is real simple: either a movie is boring, or it’s entertaining. So take your “Tomatometer,” put it in a box, mail it to your butt, and open your minds to the healing power of schlock.
976-EVIL (1988), one of Robert “Freddy Krueger” Englund’s only STABS at directing, stars Stephen Geoffreys who horror geeks will probably remember for his iconic role as Evil Ed in Tom Holland’s Fright Night. Geoffreys plays Hoax, an introverted nerd who grows frustrated with his overly protective, Jebus-worshipping guardian, Aunt Lucy. One day, during a night out in a town that couldn’t look more like a single-stage set, Hoax stumbles on a novelty phone-line called “976-EVIL.” One phone call later he finds himself imbued with satanic powers of vengeance, yaddi yadda, Hell on Earth™.
976-EVIL is a perfect example of a movie that isn’t gonna float everyone’s boat. It’s goofier than Goofy, hammier than Jon Hamm, and there’s shit like a private detective side-story that gets slapped on near the end for no reason other than “Why not?”. It exists in an artificial, Looney Tunes version of the ‘80s that, despite throwing everything and the kitchen sink at the wall, you’re gonna find either too campy or not campy enough if you’re comin’ off a John Waters high. Or maybe you just didn’t think it was much of a horror movie? Genre-fluidity, man, live it. Anyway if you’re reading this thinkin’ to yourself “I don’t know man, this sounds prettttty great...” then congratulations: a spot just opened up on the hill I’ll be dying on. You can rent or buy 976-EVIL on Amazon Prime, and there’s also a region-free Blu-Ray available from Sony.
Thomas Rondinella’s Blades (1989) is a movie that I had some trouble getting into because it is literally the most straight-faced genre-spoof I’ve ever seen. I don’t even know if you can call something so devoid of gags a spoof, but then it’s also too self-conscious to be called a plain old knock-off. Whatever. Labels, man. I do know this: Blades is a riot if you can get on its wavelength. Distributed by Troma Entertainment, it is the only feature film directed by Rondinella to date – which, if nothing else, proves that this particular wavelength requires some precise fine-tuning to get on.
Blades is basically what you’d get if you were to cross Caddyshack with Jaws. “Oh okay, so like an alligator on a golf course? Bear? Uh... Bigfoot?” Nope. Killer lawnmower. And like, not even a big industrial one, though not a garden-variety one either. Remember, this movie wants to be taken mostly seriously. Lavalantula? Take a hike. Sharknado? Make like a tree and get outta here. Y’know what? It fuckin’ works, though. Somehow Rondinella managed to embed Blades with just enough cheekiness to clue you in on what he was doing without making a big deal out of it. From swapping out “we’re gonna need a bigger boat” for “now I show you where the booze is,” everything on screen is so remarkably sincere that it deserves all the credit in the world for not taking the obvious route of gags and winks – even if it meant absolute obscurity and never getting to make Blades II: Hedges. It may look and feel a bit drab, and the only available transfer ain’t doing it any favors, but hey it’s free to watch on Troma’s official Youtube channel so just give it a go ya dolts!!!
Back when I first watched Death Spa (1988) I called it a “thesis on shlocky 80’s sensibilities” and “so far up my alley I’m gonna have to get it surgically removed.” I stand by those words but I still haven’t really figured out why it’s so good. Sure, the folks at Shapiro-Glickenhaus obviously knew what they were doin’ when they let Bill Lustig and Frank Henenlotter loose on the streets of NYC with Maniac Cop and Frankenhooker, but Austrian freshman director Michael Fischa? New phone who dat? Guess we’re just gonna have to accredit it to lightning-in-a-bottle, like it caught the ‘80s in the act of being so unabashedly ‘80s that I’m more inclined to believe someone launched a VHS of this into outer space, slapped a label on it marked “The 1980s,” some aliens found it, and traveled back in time to make this movie.
Death Spa unfolds at the Starbody Health Spa, a high-tech health club whose owner recently lost his wife in a bizarre suicide that we’re made privy to via a couple of surreal dream sequences in which she sets herself on fire while in a wheelchair. Meanwhile exercise equipment and frozen fish start turning on their human overlords for reasons that aren’t explained until a stupid twist at the end which was the style at the time. Death Spa is a runaway train showered in a haze of dayglow mist and gay subtext. If you’re thinking of watching it for Halloween, just don’t pair it up with anything else. You’re gonna need time to get off that high. You can get Death Spa on a re-issued VHS and/or Blu-Ray/DVD pack from Gorgon Video. It’s a bit pricier than your average movie, but it’s also a lot better so there.
Okay that’ll be all from me for now, if you want more horror recommendations join me over at Letterboxd where I’m watching hella horror ‘cause everyone knows Falloween starts in September.