Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Hubrisween 2019 :: K is for Killer Workout (1987)

We open en media prologue as a mystery woman returns home, checks the messages on her answering machine (-- stone-age voicemail to those of you under 20), and becomes very excited when her agent chimes in on the second beep, saying to pack her bags for Paris because she’s just been selected to model for the next cover of Cosmopolitan.

Here, cruel fate steps in when the message ends with a caveat: the agent promised she’d be well tanned. Thus, the woman, whose face we never see except in shadow, giddily heads to a tanning salon. Once there, she strips down to her panties -- still haven’t seen her face, but we do get a look at her breasts long enough to identify them in court, before she crawls into what should be aptly described as an Ultraviolet-lined sarcophagus -- he typed ominously...

But then, as the lid closes on this human-sized George Foreman grill (-- and I shoulda thought've that one first, dammit,) and the fake-baking commences, cruel fate drops the other shoe as the controls for this contraption violently shorts out, which causes the UV lights to overheat and explode as the whole thing bursts into flames. All the while, the woman trapped inside screams as she’s burned alive. And what seems an eternity only lasts for a few seconds but the damage is done as the flames die down, the screaming subsides, and acrid smoke bellows through the seams and cracks.

And the viewer isn’t given much time to contemplate if this was just an accident or sabotage or if the victim even survived this horrendous incident before we crash-cut to some undetermined time later, where we get the first of many montage sequences of an aerobics class in session at Rhonda’s Workout Gym, where it’s all jiggling boobs, gyrating hips, skin-tight leotards, butt-floss, thighs of doom, headbands and leg-warmers, all bumpin’ and grindin’ to a righteous up-tempo ballad.

And leading this class is the boss herself, Rhonda Johnson (Karr), who keeps glaring at the door and then the clock. Someone’s late. And someone’s in trouble. And that someone is her absentee instructor Jaimy (Van der Woude), who is currently in the parking lot, scooping up the contents of her dropped purse: the majority of which are condoms, just to get the film’s priorities straight.

Thus, class is long over and, after fending off yet another attempted groping by that creep Jimmy Hallik (Matthews), Rhonda is in a very foul mood when Jaimy finally slinks in and gets ripped a new asshole for being late. However, the mercurial Rhonda quickly apologizes for this outburst, accepts Jaimy’s apology, and tells her to go start cleaning things up as they prepare to close for the night. 

Meantime, there’s a few stragglers in the girl’s locker room, where customer Rachel McClee (Truesdale) is the last one in the showers. Soon all alone, someone shuts the lights off. Assuming this is a mistake, Rachel calls out to the shadowy figure lurking just outside her stall, who suddenly attacks and brutally stabs the girl to death with what looks like an oversized safety pin.

Unaware, and thinking everyone has cleared out, Jaimy gives the gym one final walk-through and nearly stumbles upon the killer moving the body. Turns out she wasn’t as alone as she thought, either, as aside from the killer, another creep named Tommy (Bravo) stuck around because he wanted to know how the zipper on her tights worked. After escorting him out and locking the door, Jaimy is drawn back into the locker area by several strange noises, which eventually leads her to a locker containing Rachel’s corpse, which topples out with a thud -- the first of many bodies soon to be found littering Rhonda’s Gym, where if the workout don’t kill ya, someone else apparently will...

Born in Newark, New Jersey, but raised in Baltimore, Maryland, after his parents divorced, Ted Prior moved to Los Angeles in 1979 at the age of 19 to pursue a career in body-building, which in turn led to some modeling gigs, a job as a Chippendale dancer, and a centerfold spread in the March 1984 issue of Playgirl Magazine and a cover spot on Playgirl’s 1984 Centerfold Annual. And at some point in the early 1980s, Ted’s older brother, David, left the east coast behind and moved to sunny California, too.

Both of the Prior’s parents were in showbiz. Their father was a stand-up comic and their mother had been a magician’s assistant for none other than Harry Blackstone, so it should come as no surprise that both children wanted to carry on this family tradition, too, with Ted wanting to act and David desiring to be a screenwriter. But after several years of rejection, the Priors decided to just make their own movie as a way to break in. And to raise the needed cash, David ran a series of one-inch classified ads in several Hollywood trades and magazines, hawking for investors on a proposed horror movie. In the end, there wasn’t near enough budget to shoot on film and hire a crew, let alone employ a veteran director. And since someone had to direct the damn thing, David stepped-up and took control of the camcorder.

The end result was Sledgehammer (1983), a bizarre, barely coherent, and barely in focus tale of a young boy who murdered his mother and her lover with, you guessed it, a sledgehammer. Cut to ten years later, and we find a group of rowdy teens staying in the same house where the murders took place. And over the course of the night, they are tormented by the boy’s ghost and picked off, one by one, by a deranged killer.

To save even more money, the majority of the film was shot inside David’s tiny two-room apartment -- if you were wondering why all the white walls and decor from scene to scene looked familiar. However, I will say the stark color combined with the over-lit and washed-out backgrounds adds a creepy, dreamlike quality that was less by design and more dumb-luck.

And with the burgeoning home video market voraciously looking for product, any product, to sell, once slapped and dashed together, Sledgehammer found a willing distributor through Western World Video and started appearing on video store shelves to be rented by unsuspecting customers. Thus, over the years since its debut Sledgehammer garnered the dubious distinction of being the first shot on video movie made directly for the home video market. And when I say ‘dubious’ I don’t mean it’s not something to be proud of -- even though the film is patently awful, but dubious in that the claim probably won’t hold up on closer examination.

I have no doubt someone in the porn industry holds the distinction of making the very first film made on magnetic tape sold directly for home video. As for legitimate movies, while Sledgehammer did beat out the likes of Black Devil Doll From Hell (1984) and Blood Cult (1984) by nearly a year, Boarding House (1982) beat them all the punch; though that film did eke out a brief theatrical release. That’s me shrugging. Regardless, the movie sold and made a profit. And the Prior boys were ready to do it again.

Now, before making Sledgehammer, Prior claimed to have had no desire to be a director but after? Well, he was hooked. Before, while trying to break in, there were thoughts of going to film school but that would cost money and take time. And Prior, already almost thirty, decided to spend the time, effort, and what little money there was, grinding it out and breaking into the business on his own in what he referred to in later interviews as “The David Prior School of Filmmaking." Thus, from the beginning Prior freely admitted he didn’t know what he was doing, but learned on the fly as he hustled investors and kept shooting. And with Sledgehammer, he’d already established some of his … eccentricities as a filmmaker: Not quite David Decoteau levels of homoerotic subtext; women be bitches or expendable boob shots; five-car twist pile-ups on top of the initial twist in the plot; and two huge slabs of beef beating the snot out of each other for prolonged expenditures of film.

For his next feature, Killzone (1985), Prior’s trade ads turned up Jack Marino. And his influx of cash resulted in a massive upgrade as the movie was shot on film and actually earned a theatrical release. Killzone also introduced a few more favorite reoccurring Prior tropes: riffing on The Most Dangerous Game and deranged Vietnam veterans on vengeful rampages. Also, the twists in his plots got even dumber. Here, Prior also established what would become his unofficial stock company: Ted Prior, of course, who I believe showed up in nearly every picture his brother made; along with Fritz Matthews, David Campbell and William Zipp, who, along with acting, would also serve as stunt-coordinators, casting directors, prop men, and set-designers.

Meanwhile, David Winters was a British born actor, dancer, and choreographer. His roles on Broadway included West Side Story and Gypsy. He then made the transition to Hollywood for Robert Wise’s big screen adaptation of West Side Story (1961). And while Winters continued to act he was more in demand as a dancer and choreographer, arranging numbers for Elvis Presley and Ann-Margeret in Viva Las Vegas (1964), Barbara Streisand in A Star is Born (1976), Linda Blair in Roller Boogie (1979), and would earn an Emmy nomination for his work on the Nancy Sinatra TV-special, Movin’ With Nancy (1967). He also formed his own troupe, The David Winters Dancers, who can be seen, working hard, on the Hullabaloo TV-series or dancing in the background during the raucous T.A.M.I. Show (1964).

Moving into the 1970s, Winters expanded his horizons even further, producing and directing several musical TV specials. His first film was a made for TV-version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1973). His first theatrical feature was a concert showcase, Alice Cooper: Welcome to My Nightmare (1975). And on the heels of Bill Lustig’s Maniac (1980), Winters reunited Joe Spinell and Caroline Munro in The Last Horror Film (1982), which was followed by the whackadoodle actioneer, Mission Kill (1986).

And then came Thrashin’ (1986), which was basically Romeo and Juliet on skateboards. During pre-production on the film, director Winters had wanted to cast Johnny Depp in the lead role but was overruled by his co-producers, who insisted on Josh Brolin. And Winters was so incensed over this incident, he decided, then and there, to maintain total creative control over all aspects of his future endeavors.

And to achieve this, Winters decided to form his own production company, Action International Pictures, with fellow producer Peter Yuval and, you guessed it, David Prior. Needing some quick capital to get this venture off the ground, the decision was made to kick out something quick and cheap that could be sold for a profit immediately.

And in this era of The Jane Fonda Workout and Olivia Newton-John convincing everyone to get “Physical” it was Winters who came up with the idea for a horror movie that combined the current aerobics craze with a standard body count movie. (I wonder if Winters also choreographed all those exercise numbers?) And Prior took it from there, writing and directing Killer Workout (1987) -- also known as Aerobicide, combining the usual slasher movie tropes with his usual macho nonsense, resulting in something completely bonkers. And just like with all of Prior’s films, just when you think it couldn’t get anymore gloriously stupid, just you wait, Boils and Ghouls.

Seriously, all one can do is watch and boggle as the narrative shifts gears and focuses on Detective Morgan (Campbell) -- but I like to refer to him as Detective Crabby-Ass, who examines the body, commenting on how “she ain’t pretty anymore” before finding a bloody knitting needle in the same locker where the body was found. He then takes an immediate disliking to Rhonda as she aggressively busts his balls and questions his competency (-- well, she ain’t wrong, and we just met the guy), while Morgan questions her and Jaimy about what they saw and when they saw it.

The interrogation then turns to the owner of the offending locker, Diane Matthews (Mock), who is described as a loner who tries but never quite fits in. But this suspect is quickly eliminated when Morgan tails the woman to her apartment, then takes too long threatening his lab tech over the radio, giving the Safety Pin Killer enough time to murder Diane and escape while our hero is stuck knocking at the front door. He does watch the killer escape on foot, but doesn’t even give a thought of pursuit. The evening wasn’t a total loss, though, as the lab confirms the knitting needle was not the murder weapon.

The following morning, the Gym is abuzz with talk of the horrendous murders, which can’t be good for business and sours Rhonda’s mood even further, who once again lashes out at poor Jaimy as she leads another lengthy and hinder-specific workout, screaming just do your job and “stop showing off your ass and tits."

Retreating to her office, Rhonda discovers a man rifling through her files. But he quickly defuses the situation, introducing himself as Chuck Dawson (Prior), the Gym’s latest hire. This is news to Rhonda, who’s told he was hired by her senior partner, Mr. Ericson. Thus, his first assignment is to muck out the men’s toilets and haul the trash to the dumpster.

In the alley, Chuck runs into Jimmy the Creep. And when I say runs into, I mean Jimmy nearly ran him over with his car. Jimmy then warns Chuck to stay away from Rhonda, and then this testosterone-off finally comes to blows. The winner? Chuck. Eventually. Whose reward is a ride home with some rando gal, who gives him the full scoop on Jimmy, saying he’s a sadist and a bondage freak. And then they have sex by the pool, because, sure. One of the many perks of your older brother directing the movie, right? Right.

Speaking of Jimmy, he soon gets on Morgan’s radar, too. Rhonda admits he likes to hang around and watch the girls, but while he’s definitely an asshole with a bad kink, she feels he isn’t the killer. And speaking of the killer, whoever it is spends the next night stalking and picking off a trio of ne'er-do-wells who vandalized the front of Rhonda’s Gym. Now, it should be noted the killer used a knife on this batch of victims, and not a giant safety pin. And in any other movie, this would be a clue. But, since we’re watching Killer Workout we’re just gonna ignore that AND the fact when the Safety Pin Killer washed-up after the second murder, those were definitely some feminine hands under the sink. But, Who cares! It’s time for another aerobics class! C’mon! Those buns of steel don’t happen by themselves, people.

And while those buns get to squeezing, meantime, in the free-weight room, the killer brazenly strikes again, slaying two meat-heads by caving their skulls in with a dumbbell while the gym is open and occupied. Tommy is the first to find these bodies, then Jaimy, who screams. This alerts Chuck, who’s been nosing around a lot for a janitor, and he misreads the scene, thinking Tommy did it and nearly beats him to death.

Later, as Morgan and the coroner police the bodies, Tommy is held in the locker room for questioning. Here, we get another David Prior trope: inexplicable dream sequences, where Jaimy enters the locker room, strips, and goes down on Tommy only to be killed by another Tommy while the real Tommy watches until he wakes up in time to be killed by the Safety Pin Killer. *eyegitty* *eyegitty* *eyegitty*

All of this happens right under Morgan’s nose, too. Thus, Rhonda once more rips into him. Thanks to his blundering, half of her clients are dead and the other half just dropped their memberships. But Morgan assures her, he understands the pattern of the victims now and once he gets a handle on the motive he’ll nail the bastard to the wall. And if it makes her feel any better, he will be leaving an officer behind to watch over things.

Meanwhile, Chuck breaks into Jimmy the Creep’s house, finds several whips and tethers, an arsenal, and a murder-wall filled with pictures of Rhonda. We next find Chuck spying on the woman in question as she goes for a swim at her home. Here, he’s ambushed by Jimmy and they run out the reel punching each other in the face and ‘nads. This fight does spill over into the next reel a bit, too, until Morgan shows up. 

Jimmy gets away, but Chuck remains, revealing what he found in Jimmy’s apartment, his obvious obsession with Rhonda, and he feared she would be next and was trying to protect her. Seems Chuck is a private eye sent in by Rhonda’s silent partner to keep an eye on things. Morgan apparently sniffed that out already and tells Chuck to butt-out and go home to San Francisco.

Meantime, meanwhile, back at the Gym, a couple of scared ex-customers hurriedly clean out their lockers to get out before they’re killed, too. But one of them wants to say goodbye to Jaimy before she leaves. A fatal mistake, as the lights go off, and a strange noise draws her to a storage closet, where she discovers Jaimy, dead, strangled and strung up and twisting in the air-conditioning. And then, whoever did this to her, springs out and stabs the woman in the head. And once the killer is long gone, the officer on duty shows up and takes in the carnage. Obviously, Detective Morgan taught him everything he knows.

With that, Rhonda’s Gym is finally shut down -- a good thing, too, because the coroner was about to run out of body bags. We then cut to a home, where a bald and horribly scarred woman is putting on a wig. And when she turns around *gasp* it’s Rhonda! Apparently the victim survived that tanning bed accident after all. Then Morgan arrives. Seems he finally found his motive for the murders. He knows Rhonda’s real name is Valerie Johnson; an aspiring supermodel, who suffered third-degree burns over 70% of her body, and “now can’t get a job starring in a freak show!” (Stay classy, Detective Crabby-Ass.) He’s also convinced Rhonda is the killer. Her motive? Jealousy. She just couldn’t handle all those beautiful people at the gym and had to kill them because psychosis is as psychosis does. 

But just as he slaps the cuffs on her, word comes over the radio that Jimmy the Creep just murdered Chuck with an ice-pick in front of several witnesses. (Of COURSE after they spent ten minutes punching each other in the face and ‘nads.) And so, it looks like Jimmy was the killer all along. And after expending another reel in an extended and ultimately pointless foot chase, where, surprise, Jimmy eludes Morgan by kicking him in the face and 'nads a couple times. 

Jimmy then returns to the Gym, where Rhonda is just getting out of the shower and we see the full extent of the damage to her body. She’s startled when Jimmy says he killed all those people for her because he loves her. Jimmy then turns on the lights, and the look on his face when he sees Rhonda, the real Rhonda -- the scars, the deformed breasts, and his dream girl fantasy detonates right before his very eyes is quite the trip and a thing of beauty. But he doesn’t have long to contemplate his terrible mistake as Rhonda produces a .357 Magnum and puts six bullets into him.

Though she’s hailed a hero who brought down a mad-dog killer in self-defense, Morgan still thinks Rhonda is guilty of the majority of murders. Sure, Jimmy killed Chuck but he did that to draw suspicion away from her. And here, we’ve reached Prior’s patented five-car twist pile-up when Morgan essentially kidnaps Rhonda and drives her out into the country, admits his cop father was a firm believer in vigilante justice, who once put-down a serial killer that got off on a technicality. And now, he intends to do the same with Rhonda. He even brought a shovel along for Rhonda to dig her own grave. But just like with everything else, Morgan totally botches this.

And so, we cut to Rhonda’s Gym, which is back to normal as a new instructor puts another aerobics class through their paces. In the office, Rhonda tells her new manager she won’t be staying and just stopped by to pick up her keys. And when she finishes rummaging through her desk, she produces those keys, whose key-chain just so happens to be a giant safety pin.

It’s interesting to note that there were two killers at work in Killer Workout. Well, three if you wanna count Morgan. Of course, until that final shot we couldn’t be sure if Rhonda really was the Safety Pin Killer -- my moniker, not the movies, or if it was Jimmy and Morgan had just lost his damn mind during the denouement. Thus, there was almost something really clever and devious going on in the script as to the killer’s true identity. Intriguing even, but with this being a David Prior Joint I’m not sure if Prior the screenwriter even realized this or planned this or was just throwing crap at the wall and then waited to see what stuck.

As it stands, Jimmy killed the vandals, the two meat-heads and Chuck in an effort to help Rhonda since he apparently knew she was the killer all along. Maybe. Or maybe he thought they just threatened her somehow and acted out accordingly. And Rhonda was responsible for all the Safety Pin murders. And the only deaths up in the air are Jaimy and the innocent bystander, but I’m leaning toward Jimmy on those given the mode of death. And funny story. When I rewatched this movie for this shindig it had been so long I honestly thought Jimmy and Tommy were the same guy! Both characters were grab-fanny creeps, and Fritz Matthews and Richard Bravo are nearly twins at a glance in the VHS murk. And so, when Tommy is killed, and then Jimmy shows up a few scenes later I thought it was a catastrophic continuity error as my notes will attest: WAIT! ISN’T HE ALREADY DEAD?! Even had it underlined. Three times.

As for the rest of the cast, Ted Prior was in his comfort zone of looking buff and putting his fists in someone else’s face. David Campbell is passable as Detective Morgan, but the script does him no favors. However, Marcia Karr is a freakin’ delight as the bitchy and ruthless Rhonda. The woman takes no shit, and the character needs to be better known in slasher movie lore. And while we’re at it, how about a round of applause for the Aerobicide Dancers! Kelly Ann Sabatasso, Elizabeth Keeme, Veronica Davis, Sheila Howard, Kris Hagerty, Andrea Drever, Monica Karlson, Kathi Miller, Lorain Joyner, Lori E. Forsberg, Kima Lindquist and Krysia Javid. Great job, ladies! Keep on workin’ it!

And speaking of those dancers, one of Killer Workout’s biggest assets is the pop music accompanying all those lengthy routines that take up, like, a third of the damned movie. "Only You Tonight" by Donna De Lory is the real stand-out track, with Sunny Hilden’s "Rock N' Rock" a close cock-knocking second. And then there’s Mary Hylan’s title track “Aerobicide” which encouraged everyone to workout until you died. To obtain these tracks, Winters had contacts with A.S.C.A.P. and B.M.I., who, according to Prior, turned over a box full of cassettes, each with a fully produced plot-specific song on it. The director then sat through each and every one of them and decided what songs to use.

As for the rest of the film, well, the plot makes no sense and barely holds together but at least it was competently shot -- even though Prior and his cinematographer, Peter Bonilla, did not get along at all. But it accomplished its main goal when it was picked up by Academy Home Entertainment and released on tape. And Winters took that money and sunk it into their next feature, which would inaugurate in Action International Pictures. And that picture was Deadly Prey (1987), which was the most insane thing the Priors ever did. You will believe a man can chop another man’s arm off and then beat him to death with it. From there, this new AIP unleashed all kinds of cinematic mayhem: Space Mutiny (1988), Future Force (1989), Lock 'n' Load (1990), and Raw Nerve (1991) to rattle off a few.

After Killer Workout, David Prior would handle about four to five of those pictures a year for his executive producer until 1992, when Winters bought his two partners out. And after retiring for nearly a decade, Prior was back at it when Deadly Prey started doing the midnight cult circuit around 2010, which resulted in a sequel, Deadliest Prey (2013). And Prior had two films in the pipeline when he unexpectedly passed away in 2015, leaving a legacy of 40 films. None of them any good, but all highly entertaining in their own way.

As for Killer Workout? Well, I still contend Prior most likely had no idea how close he came to something truly profound and unique in this kooky slasher whodunit with all the plausible killers and possible motives for all involved. I like to think they were all crazy. It’s terribly awesome, and awesomely terrible. Either, or both. And where the heck can a guy get his hands on one of those awesome Rhonda’s Workout t-shirts? Asking for a friend.

What is Hubrisween? This is Hubrisween! 26 Days! 26 Films! 26 Reviews! And now, Boils and Ghouls, be sure to follow this linkage as The Fiasco Brothers and Yours Truly countdown from A to Z all October long! That's 11 reviews down with 15 more to go! Up Next: The (End of the World) According to Hal Lindsey!

Killer Workout (1987) Shapiro Entertainment :: Academy Home Entertainment / EP: David Winters, Marc Winters / P: Peter Yuval / CP: David A. Prior / AP: Thomas Baldwin / D: David A. Prior / W: David A. Prior / C: Peter Bonilla / E: David A. Prior / M: Todd Hayen / S: Marcia Karr, David Campbell, Fritz Matthews, Ted Prior, Teresa Van der Woude, Richard Bravo, Dianne Copeland, Laurel Mock, Lynn Meighan, Teresa Truesdale

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