DirectorChester Fox, Alex Stevens
Release Date(s)1973 (February 14, 2023)
Studio(s)Cinemid Films (Vinegar Syndrome)
- Film/Program Grade: D
- Video Grade: A-
- Audio Grade: B+
- Extras Grade: C+
If Herschell Gordon Lewis had been a New Yorker, he would have made something akin to Massage Parlor Murders. Released in the mid-1970s under a couple of different titles in varying versions, this low grade police procedural meets exploitation skin flick was hard to come by on home video for many years until Vinegar Syndrome resurrected it in 2013. It’s not a very good film, but it definitely captures a time and place, specifically New York City in the 1970s, operating on its own weird choppy and meandering style—yet with something on its mind other than just straight T&A.
A pair of New York detectives are investigating a sudden series of murders committed in massage parlors across the city. Each of them are seeing women who work in these places, which makes the case more personal to them. With no motive or leads and few witnesses, it’s a race against time as more of these women are slain by an unknown madman.
The film was initially seen as not much more than a cheap piece of sexploitation, especially after it was re-cut and re-released under the title Massage Parlor Hookers, which emphasized the nudity and trimmed back on the murder. The latter can be surprisingly brutal, particularly the first instance when a woman’s face is bashed into a mirror before she’s strangled to death. Later on, another victim is choked to death and acid is thrown on her afterwards. As such, these are not run-of-the-mill stabbings and throttlings, which makes them a little more interesting. The reveal of the killer and why they’re doing what they’re doing is evidence that the filmmakers were paying attention to serial killings from the era and took inspiration from them. It’s also out of the ordinary that the detectives are personally linked to the case, making them more sympathetic to it rather than standing outside of it in judgment, like a lot police procedurals during this era.
Massage Parlor Murders is far from being some unsung masterpiece of storytelling, but it’s charming if you approach it with the right frame of mind. You may even get a few chuckles out of it as it seems to have a sense of humor of its own, particularly the opening scene when a potential customer refuses the advances of a young lady. However, there are long stretches of time when characters are wandering from place to place set to lounge music, occasionally internalizing or even speaking out loud to each other without moving their lips, Coleman Francis style. A nude indoor pool party is punctuated by a surprisingly well-executed car chase, and a simple round of questioning by the detectives leads into a philosophical rant by Brother Theodore. In other words, Massage Parlor Murders is not quite what you think it is, but it’s fascinating enough to stick with it. Horror fans will want to keep their eyes peeled for Sandra Peabody from The Last House of the Left, George Dzundza from Salem’s Lot, and Beverly Bonner from Basket Case.
Massage Parlor Murders was shot by director of photography Victor Petrashevic on 35 mm film using Arriflex 35 IIC cameras and spherical lenses, finished photochemically, and presented in the aspect ratio of 1.85:1. Vinegar Syndrome brings the film to Ultra HD with a new 4K scan of the original camera negative, graded for High Dynamic Range (HDR10 is the only available option). As this was a very low budget film and likely shot very quickly, much of its visual flaws are built in. That said, this is a crisp presentation that makes the film look better than it perhaps has any right to. Heavy to medium grain that’s fairly well refined is on display with only minor scratches and speckling. The HDR grade deepens detail in the color palette, allowing for an array of hues in and around the city streets, as well as superior contrast with good shadow detail and natural flesh tones. It’s a very film-like presentation that resolves beautifully, and definitely didn’t look as good theatrically.
Audio is included in English 2.0 mono DTS-HD Master Audio with optional subtitles in English SDH. Though limited by its low budget source, the track offers decent fidelity with good push for the music. Dialogue exchanges are mostly clear and the overall track is clean.
Massage Parlor Murders on 4K UHD sits in a black amaray case alongside a 1080p Blu-ray of the film. Also included is a double-sided insert and a limited slipcover. The following extras are included on each disc, all in HD:
DISC ONE (UHD)
- Audio Commentary with Samm Deighan
DISC TWO (BD)
- Audio Commentary with Samm Deighan
- Sin City: The Locations of Massage Parlor Murders! (11:29)
- Massage Parlor Murders Trailer (2:40)
- Massage Parlor Hookers Trailer (1:57)
- TV Spot (:33)
- Outtake Reel (9:35)
In the new audio commentary with film historian and author Samm Deighan, she discusses the many qualities of the film, how it subverts expectations, and its place within exploitation film history. She also talks about the actors and filmmakers involved, though she mostly investigates the merits of the film. Sin City features Fangoria legend Michael Gingold doing a filming locations tour throughout New York. Also included are a pair of trailers and a TV spot, all of which appear to have been digitally re-created. Last is a set of silent outtakes set to score from the film. Missing from the previous Vinegar Syndrome Blu-ray release are the alternate cuts of the film, a radio spot, and a different set of outtakes.
There’s no way to recommend a film like Massage Parlor Murders, other than to those seeking cinema outside of traditional parameters. Whether it needed a UHD upgrade or not will entirely be in the eye of the beholder, but it’s a fine one nonetheless.
- Tim Salmons