When you spend your days looking up cult or just out-of-the-way film, you memorize the name of a few distinct distributors: the Criterion Collection, Unearthed Films, Severin Films, and Drafthouse Films come instantly to mind. A specific concern I noticed is accessibility with regards to titles; Criterion’s material is either limited to expensive physical releases or streaming through Hulu Plus, while Unearthed and Severin rarely have material streaming or available digitally (Unearthed sells most of their products only through their website). Drafthouse, on the other hand, is the availability champion who releases material in tiers ranging from simple format-preferred downloads to full Blu-Rays with posters, soundtrack downloads, and prop replica inserts. I understand costs and different licensing fees make Drafthouse an oddity in comparison to other distributors, but I also find it hard to swallow when the only way to legally watch certain obscure film is through the “Cool Kid’s Special Limited Edition”. Special editions 1973’s Massage Parlor Murders.
Massage Parlor Murders was directed by Chester Fox, who has no other film credits to his name, and stunt man Alex Stevens, known for playing a recurring werewolf from the soap opera Dark Shadows and a recurring live-action chef on 80’s era Sesame Street with a voice dub over by Jim Henson himself.
Starting with an odd Casio-keyboard/elevator music credits montage with still shots of who each cast member plays, we find New York based Detective Rissoti just “finishing” up with massage parlor favorite, the cherry-blonde Rosie. Leaving the land of “happy endings”, deep-browed Rissoti meets up with my high school sculpture teacher Mr. Johnson his fresh young partner O-Mara, the good detective in this buddy detective pairing. Leaving Rosie to go back to her job, Rissoti has O-Mara drive him home to his nagging wife, who’s first line is “What have I told you about leaving your gun on the table?”, while the shot-on location 70’s New York works as eye-candy.
New York’s local massage parlors start to feel the “not part of the deal, buddy” tight squeeze (figuratively and sometimes literally) of murder. Starting with Rissoti’s favorite Rosie, grisly (well, as grisly as 70’s era orange blood can be) strangulations and stabbings have befallen the massage parlor hot-pants wearing ladies. Out for justice and revenge for Rosie’s murder, Rissoti and O-Mara must now put their detective skills to the test, leading them through crazy adventures like confronting an Orson Wells look-a-like astrologist, entering a sexy party in a health club pool in the middle of the day, and even dating Rosie’s roommate. Because why not?
Massage Parlor Murders is one half crime and one half mystery film with a sexploitation angle that doesn’t add anything. Historically, the film was rebranded as Massage Parlor Hookers, paralleling the original Hitchcock Psycho’s referencing serial killer trailer with an out of context trailer pretending the film is all prostitute (this type of massage parlor worker is technically not a prostitute in the classic definition)centered sexploitation. Both trailers would work great as a marketing promotion case study, but only ends up comedic in perspective. Here is where Massage Parlor Murders truly falters as a film. I believe exploitation is an experimental playground where weirder is better, since speedy creation was far more important than any peer-group testing ever so common today. Exploitation is a budget constraint, not a genre. Yet I approach exploitation in a similar way that I approach genre-fare; contrast martial arts choreography and horror visuals to exploitation’s notion for experimentalism. As an Alejandro Jodorowsky fan, Massage Parlor Murder’s sexy pool party and leotard fetish performance while Hall of the Mountain King plays feels tame and rather boring by comparison. I am expecting far more than what Massage Parlor Murders intends to market, so the draw of a half-sexploitation is lost on a man who, after watching Jodorowsky’s nudity filled The Holy Mountain, who feels nonplussed by titillation level bare-breasts.
Until I started wearing glasses, Blu-Ray was a disc format which exists to make films like Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer and Dead Alive look grainy. Now, I can tell the difference between the shot-in HD footage used at every Blu-Ray kiosk display and what Massage Parlor Murders is: an upscale. From those great exterior New York City streets with their signs and shots of pacing patrons, to the groovy parlor posters, purple long chairs, and one fantastic Persian wallpaper in the interiors shots, Massage Parlor Murders is filled with lush Blu-Ray enhanced color.
Pros: Blu-ray upscale insinuates the film’s strongest visual points: the New York cinematography and the 70’s interior décor. Loud guitar and synth soundtrack gets in your head and greatly accent the previously mentioned New York scenery. Detective O’Mara comes off as a likable nice guy, unfortunately reminding me that the best character has only slight amounts of characterization.
Cons: Far too tame and restrained for someone as jaded as me; tried to show me excess and titties where I simply yawned and found myself distracted by the internet while typing notes in Word. Needless scenes and jarring editing transitions left no time for what was a rushed final climax. Film’s strongest aspect comes with an Achilles’ heel when the consequences of shooting in New York in the middle of the day and a loud soundtrack create difficulties when hearing characters speak; getting so bad that the characters needed to be dubbed over.
Film restoration and distribution company Vinegar Syndrome (clever name) has Massage Parlor Murders in a Blu-Ray/DVD combo pack with a linear note book and a lab card denoting the film’s title change. Massage Parlor Murders is a testament to the dying physical film- consuming market; equating what would be a forgettable martial arts film from a cheap seven feature box set and expecting it to stand by itself by prettying it up with a full-restoration and putting it out with a pretty release. Massage Parlor Murders is a great example of a films history and a film’s existence far outweighing the content of the film itself. At least the box cover is gorgeous.