In today’s high-tech world, many casual viewers of films and videos have little appreciation for what came before. Clearly, some of this is due to the fact that practically every television set has a billion channels of programming available at any given hour of the day (or night), so there’s very little need – much less desire – to seek out some of the lesser titles of yesteryear, of which I’ve no doubt something like MASSAGE PARLOR MURDERS (aka MASSAGE PARLOR HOOKERS) is part and parcel of. Instead, folks will pop in some cheaply-produced direct to DVD release starring any number of forgettable performers and featuring any variation of plot they’ve seen hundreds of times before.
I’m certainly not making the case that MASSAGE PARLOR MURDERS is necessarily a better choice. It is, nonetheless, an apt portrait for storytelling plucked from a different time – a different culture with different storytelling expectations – and, for that reason alone, I’d argue it’s worth at least a single view.
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and characters. If you’re the kind of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last two paragraphs for my final assessment. If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
A serial killer who targets massage parlor prostitutes is on the loose. Unfortunately, the cops can’t catch a break – much less a legitimate suspect – and the trail runs cold before the audience can say ‘entrapment.’ (There’s a brief, goofy sidetrack involved with their only possible lead, played by screen veteran George Dzundza – who also happens to be the assistant director – in what has to be one of his earliest appearances ever.) But when one cop falls for the roommate of a victim, it becomes a race against time to catch the murderer before he might catch her!
MASSAGE PARLOR MURDERS boasts the kind of plot that ignited so much of the early 1970’s exploitation scene. It’s got hot women. It’s got sex. It’s got nudity. It’s got violence. It’s got blood. It’s got wicked subcultures. It’s got crooked cops. It’s got meaty undertones (i.e. religion). It’s got car chases. It’s got beer and cigarettes. And, unfortunately, it’s got a lot of bad acting, but that’s all meant in good, gory fun. Quite literally, every possible influence you could ever want in a respectable, B movie (or is that C-movie?) in there and more, so much so that I was a bit surprised it didn’t wallow in its excess.
And how is it?
Well, it’s about as entertaining as any sub-standard release could’ve been for its time, and that’s why I’d endorse it worth a single view.
As I said in the opening, folks today certainly can’t appreciate the blood and bluster that was the underground exploitation scene that populated double-bills at lesser theatres or drive-ins through-out the 1970’s and early 80’s. None of these were meant to be ‘great pictures’; rather, they were made on the cheap for no other reason than the love of making it AND the love of watching it. I’ve no doubt that all of this gusto maybe meant something more to the folks who threw it together because there are solid hints at some admirable ideas so often explored in big budget films (the cop-buddy film, the serial killer, etc.). Films like this don’t get made all that often these days, and that’s why I found much of MASSAGE to be a terrific portrait of what subversive filmmaking was like. If anything, the film screens like an hour-long police procedural with probably 20 minutes of mild gratuitousness added for the crowd appeal. Watch closely, and you’ll see perhaps every lovely victim still breathing after they’ve been pronounced dead. Watch even closer, and you might see them blink their eyes.
MASSAGE PARLOR MURDERS is produced by Craig Nolan and Bert Cohen. DVD distribution is being handled through Vinegar Syndrome. As for the technical specifications, you might be surprised how well this looks and sounds given its age and history; yes, there’s some modest grain and 2.0 channel sound isn’t all that grand, but I found this better than most. As for the bonuses? There are theatrical trailers and a host of outtakes (about eight minutes) that may not add up to much more than alternate takes and ‘filler’ cinematography, but there’s a terrific essay available in liner notes by Temple of Schlock writer Chris Poggiali that’s tops.
RECOMMENDED. Will a film like MASSAGE PARLOR MURDERS shatter expectations? With a title like that, need I give you an honest answer? Will it define the way movies are made in the present day and age? Of course not. Spielberg and Scorsese have nothing to worry about. Will it alter the fabric of time and space? Not very likely. But what it may do is serve as eighty minutes of film history. It’s a throwback to a time when special effects were practical considerations needing to be captured in-process and not to be fixed in post. This is a B-movie with A-movie ideas, ones not all that dissimilar to David Fincher’s SE7EN thematically. I’ve seen (obviously) far worse exploitation flicks than this one. Despite some weird pacing problems that plague the latter half, this one ends up being pretty benign by comparison.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Vinegar Syndrome provided me with an advance DVD copy of MASSAGE PARLOR MURDERS by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review.