This trailer is NSFW:
I love genre cinema. I will always have a soft spot for horror, action, sci-fi, and all the subgenres that exist inside those larger categories. What I have never felt any real connection to are those films that exist in the realm of pure sleaze. You know the ones: the films from the ’70s and ’80s, filled with ugly violence and sex that is the opposite of titillating, usually shot on cheap film stock with semi-amateur casts. But knowing these films have a large following and several companies devoted to restoring them makes me wonder what I am missing. So, armed with a subscription to Vinegar Syndrome’s Exploitation TV, I am going to do a deep dive into the world of sleazy exploitation. This is My Exploitation Education.
Is there a film title that screams 42nd Street more than MASSAGE PARLOR MURDERS! (a.k.a. MASSAGE PARLOR HOOKERS)? It even has the exclamation mark for a punctuation to make sure any potential viewers get the message: “This movie is shameless about how much sex, nudity, and violence it contains. You need to see it!” But like so many of the films that played grindhouse theaters in the ’70s, what wound up on screen does not live up to the hyperbole.
A maniac is killing prostitutes working in seedy New York City “massage parlors” and NYPD detectives Rizetti (George Spencer) and O’Mara (John Moser) are on the case. And that’s pretty much the movie. There is some of the sex and violence promised in the title, but it is so clumsily staged and mostly tame (save for one really nasty murder and a goofy naked pool party that left me with the word “unsanitary” running through my head) that it barely registers. Needless to say, we are not talking THE NEW YORK RIPPER or MANIAC levels of depravity here. When the filmmaking is as sloppy as it is in MASSAGE PARLOR MURDERS!, that is a problem.
Since I began writing this column, I have come to expect and even embrace a certain level of sloppiness among some of these films. The sloppier ones tend to have a more unhinged tone and a greater willingness to indulge in the seedier side of their premises. Unfortunately, MASSAGE PARLOR MURDERS! features too many time padding scenes of peripheral characters talking about inane subjects instead of fully exploring the sleazier possibilities that come along with a film featuring such a lurid title.
What the film does have going for it is a decent absurdist streak. The opening scene of one of the ladies at a massage parlor coaxing a nervous first-time customer through the process while pumping him for more cash for each layer of clothing she removes is legitimately funny and pays off in an unexpected way. The naked pool party ends with O’Mara—wearing only a towel—chasing a suspect down the street before throwing a cabbie out of his taxi and engaging in a car chase that is equal parts silly and surprisingly well-done stunt driving. Brother Theodore pops up for a cameo as an astrologer and promptly chews the scenery for five minutes, improvising all manner of weird proclamations (sample dialogue: “It is my sincere wish that immediately after my death, my head be severed from my body and that it be replaced by a bouquet of broccoli; the better to comfort the mourners.”)
In addition to the welcome streak of intentional weirdness and humor, the characters are slightly better drawn than usually are provided in this kind of fare. That is not to say they are well written, just that they are more believable than I expected out of clichéd roles like the angry, burned out cop or the “hooker with a heart of gold.” Rizetti, in particular, is fairly interesting. He is kind of a terrible person and cop, making for an odd hero to follow. But in his surliness, piss poor detective skills, and grumpy/bored behavior when his wife drags him to Church, he is actually relatable.
The humor and decent characters helped MASSAGE PARLOR MURDERS! over some interminable filler scenes of Rizetti wandering around Times Square while his rambling thoughts are given via voiceover and a long montage of O’Mara’s budding romance with Gwen (Sandra Peabody), the roommate of one of the victims. Abandoning the best aspects of the film for a third act that requires the characters to suddenly behave in ways that seem alien to how any human being would act to move the plot along is more disappointing than usual. Aside from a crazed finale that has a strange apocalyptic tone, the third act of the film is a real slog of bad police procedural tropes and cheesy melodrama.
MASSAGE PARLOR MURDERS! leaves me feeling torn. It has enough fun and intriguing elements to make it worth watching, but if you use a title that aggressive in what it promises, you better deliver the exploitation goods. In that regard, the film does not succeed. Call it an interesting failure that will not necessarily make you feel you wasted your time by watching it. Take that backhanded compliment how you will.
Looking for a more positive take on MASSAGE PARLOR MURDERS!? You can read Paul Freitag-Fey’s excellent review of the film’s 2013 Blu-ray release here.
–Matt Wedge (@MovieNerdMatt)