death spa

Haunted House – House + Spa  = How Did This Get Made?!?!

Nobody sets out to make a bad movie. But the truth is, it happens all the time. And every time it does, there’s a fun misadventure and cautionary tale lurking somewhere behind the scenes. This is that story for the campy, cultish 1989 horror film Death Spa.

How Did This Get Made is a companion to the podcast How Did This Get Made with Paul Scheer, Jason Mantzoukas and June Diane Raphael which focuses on movies so bad they are amazing. This regular feature is written by Blake J. Harris, who you might know as the writer of the book Console Wars, soon to be a motion picture produced by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg. You can listen to the Death Spa edition of the HDTGM podcast here

Synopsis: When an electrical storm hits a computerized health club, the machines seemingly come to life and start murdering the fitness junkies inside.

Tagline: You’ll Sweat Blood!

To celebrate Halloween, me and the gang at HDTGM decided to throw on our neon 1980’s headbands and investigate what happens when good gymnasiums go bad.

Death Spa

Here’s what happened, as told by those who made it happen…

Featuring:

  • Arledge Armenaki Director of Photography
  • Jamie Beardsley Producer
  • Michael Fischa Director
  • Mitch Paradise Writer
  • David Shaughnessy Actor (Fast Freddie)
  • Elijah Drenner Director of An Exercise in Terror: The Making of Death Spa

dark sky films

Prologue

In 2007, Elijah Drenner received a list of little known horror films whose home video rights had been acquired, but not yet released, by a distributor named MPI Media. This list, and what it represented, was of particular interest to Drenner. Not only because, as a cinephile and horror enthusiast, he was in the small fraternity of people who had actually heard of these movies before. But also because, over the past few years, he’d been crafting making-of documentaries to accompany many of MPI’s DVD releases. 

Elijah Drenner: I did this sort of work for a couple of labels under the MPI umbrella: Dark Sky Films and Gorgon Media. Gorgon was almost exclusively their Faces of Death stuff and Dark Sky used to be catalogue horror titles. But then after Hatchet 2 they started producing contemporary stuff. Like The Innkeepers and a new one called Deathgasm.

Even though MPI was mainly focused on new content, they did still own the rights to a strange and expansive roster of older horror films. So they kept Drenner abreast with the state of their library in order to pick his brain about what might be worthy of a re-release and, in that event, whether it might add value for him to create a making-of. 

Elijah Drenner: I love doing these kinds of documentaries. You always learn something interesting, so I’m always eager to do more. And I remember, back in 2007, asking MPI what else they got. They sent me a list of this and this and this. Some were good some were bad. But also on this list was something called Death Spa. Huh? Death Spa? What the hell was that? I mean, no one had ever heard of this thing before….

Jamie Beardsley, Arledge Armenaki and Micki Fischa

Jamie Beardsley, Arledge Armenaki and Micki Fischa

CUT TO: 26 YEARS EARLIER…

Part 1: Woman on Fire

Every movie—good or bad, big or small—is the byproduct of several individuals. That number, of course, can range from a few dozen to a few thousand, but regardless of the final tally there’s one thing almost every movie has in common: a prime mover. The person who sets it all into motion and pushes everything along until the bitter (or beautiful) end. This is the person who, without them, the movie would not exist nor get finished. And in the case of Death Spa, that prime mover is Jamie Beardsley.  

Jamie Beardsley: Would I still have made the movie if I’d known, from the beginning, how hard it was all going to be? Oh yes, absolutely. I was so down for doing this. I was just a woman on fire. I would have done it if it was twice as hard. I just really wanted to get out there and get some shit done. I mean, we knew it wasn’t going to be the greatest film in the world, but we just wanted to make something different and something cool.

The “we” that Beardsley is referring to—a renegade-spirited cast and crew that would grow to over sixty by the time that Death Spa was all said and done—started off as just two people: her and Walter Shenson.  

Jamie Beardsley: The way I met Walter was kind of funny. I was living in LA and working with a financier named Bill Sharmat who was one of the engineers of the Australian and US tax shelter deals of the late 70s and early 80s. Things were going pretty well, until Bill decided he wanted to move to Australia. But luckily, before he left, he gave me a list of people who I could contact to see about scrounging up a job. And on that list, of about ten people, Walter happened to be one of those names and we just kind of struck up an incredible friendship that, you know, lasted until the day he died.

Death Spa: Walter Shenson, hovering over Brenda Bakke (who claims to not remember making the film).

Walter Shenson, hovering over Brenda Bakke (who claims to not remember making the film).

Walter Shenson was a seasoned producer who, by the time he met Beardsley, was 61 years old and hadn’t made a film in over four years. But still, there was something magnetic and mysterious about him.  

Jamie Beardsley: Walter really was one of the last gentleman producers. Always wore a suit, always was nicely dressed and groomed. Very cultured. Very, very creative. And he just loved movies. He was a complete and total enthusiast. And so together, we set about making some movies together.

Not long into their collaboration, a producer friend named Waleed Ali—who worked at MPI Media and had distributed several of Shenson’s films—mentioned that the horror market was really hot and that they should consider doing a project in this space. Although neither Beardsley nor Shenson had any experience in the horror genre, they were both intrigued by the challenge and the financial upside of doing a low budget, self-contained scary movie. So too was a young, Austrian theater director.   

Michael Fischa: [thick Austrian accent] My first thing in America, I did a play called It’s Not The End of the World or Is It? at the Beverly Hills Playhouse. And then Universal came in and bought the rights; they wanted to do a TV show and the whole blah blah. I thought this would be a good way to get into the film scene, so to speak, but I was new to Hollywood and Universal did not want anything to do with me. Then I met Walter.

Jamie Beardsley: Walter just loved Michael. Right away. Walter was always very good at finding talented, new voices.

Michael Fischa: I always did serious theater stuff, but I said to Walter I really wanted to do a horror movie. He said, “You know what? I did the Beatles movies and all those other movies, but I really want to do a silly horror movie too.” That was the beginning! But I did not have a horror movie written and he did not either, so Jamie Beardsley, who was the producer, hired a writer.

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Beardsley brought on James Bartruff, a writer with no prior credits, to script a horror movie that captured the trendy zeitgeist of Los Angeles in the early eighties. 

Michael Fischa: The health craze had blossomed in LA. They came up like mushrooms. So quickly that they went out of business. So we thought, basically, we turn it around and we have a ghost in our health club. That could be a fun scenario.

And so, with close collaboration from Beardsley, Shenson and Fischa, James Bartruff got to work writing Death Spa. But even though Bartruff managed finish a draft of the script by early 1983, nothing happened with project for another few years. There were two primary reasons for this delay: 

  1. Beardsley and Shenson decided to first shoot a film called Echo Park. 
  2. The script for Death Spa wasn’t very good.

The first reason, with time, would eventually resolve itself. But the second, that would require the wordsmithery of one Mr. Mitch Paradise…  

Continue Reading Death Spa Oral History >>

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