The new DVD/Blu-ray combo pack of Massage Parlor Murders – available now from Vinegar Syndrome – is released under the title from its initial 1973 release. But the film gained greater notoriety under the name it adopted for its 1975 re-release, Massage Parlor Hookers. What a difference a single word can make, eh? While the original release received little reaction, the trashier title played at drive-ins throughout the ’70s. It was often part of double or triple bills with a myriad of sleazy movies, but there’s more to it than an average exploitation picture.

As the title suggests, Massage Parlor Murders is about a serial killer who murders hookers at massage parlors (fronts for prostitution, of course) throughout New York City. He kills and mutilates them in a variety of sadistic ways, including pouring acid on one victim. The death scenes are shot from a first-person point of view in order to maintain the mystery of the killer’s identity (although there’s no big twist; it wouldn’t have particularly hindered the picture to show the audience his face). This was done out of necessity rather then artistry, but the technique – which would later be utilized in innumerable slashers – was ahead of its time.

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Officers Rizotti (George Spencer) and O’Mara (John Moser) are assigned to the case, and both have a vested interest in finding the madman responsible. Rizotti was having an affair with the first victim, Rosie (Chris Jordan), while O’Mara becomes romantically involved with her roommate and fellow prostitute, Gwen (Sandra Peabody). They scour the underbelly of New York, running into several seedy characters along the way.

After coming up empty handed and with three girls turning up dead in a week, Rizotti comes to the realization that the killer – please note: this is a minor spoiler – is targeting parlors with names that are vaguely connected to the seven deadly sins. (Yep, they did it long before David Fincher’s Seven!) He has this revelation, humorously, in church. The reveal is played up like a giant, thrilling shock, but it has very little impact on the film. It would have been more effective had it been introduced earlier in the picture and they follow the killer’s trail; instead, it’s merely the impetus to find him and wrap up the story.

The DVD/Blu-ray combo pack marks the obscure title’s first release on either format. It includes both the original cut and the shortened version from its re-release. They are identical, save for a six-and-a-half pre-credit sequence that was excised. It’s difficult to tell if the acting in this scene is poor or if it was intentionally hammy for comedic purpose, but it has no bearing on the rest of the picture. Aside from showing the first of many pairs of breasts, it’s not missed from the truncated version.

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The 2K high-definition transfer was sourced from an original negative. The picture was cleaned up but some light dirt remains to avoid damage to the image, and some parts of the audio fare better than others. However, the imperfections merely add to the gritty tone. The release also includes 8 minutes of deleted footage, two trailers and a radio spot, as well as liner notes by Temple of Schlock writer Chris Poggiali.

The cast and crew of Massage Parlor Murders are a curious bunch. The film is the lone credit of director Chester Fox, who shares the billing with Alex Stevens, an stuntman/actor best remembered as The Werewolf from Dark Shadows. Although he never directed anything else, Stevens was brought in to helm reshoots – including a nice Manhattan car chase and a bizarre, if tame, pool orgy. Interestingly, there is no credited writer.

Spencer and Moser didn’t do much else, but Peabody, of course, had starred in The Last House on the Left just prior to this film. Jordan was an adult film star who also appeared in Deep Throat II. Anne Gaybis (who portrayed the cashier in Friday the 13th Part III) plays another one of the girls. Character actor George Dzundza (Basic Instict) appears as the aptly named Mr. Creepy while serving as assistant director. Finally, comedian Brother Theodore (The ‘Burbs) receives a “special guest star” credit for his appearance as a nonsensical astrologer.

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Massage Parlor Murders remindeds me a bit of The Gore Gore Girls; both low-budget films revolve around a man trying to catch a serial killer targeting scantily-clad women – without much plot otherwise. The film also brings to mind Taxi Driver; it certainly lacks Martin Scorsese’s panache, but they share the uniquely gritty 1970s New York aesthetic, and Spencer bears a resemblance to Robert De Niro (after a bender, at least).

Massage Parlor Murders is ultimately derivative, forgettable and, despite being padded with gratuitous nudity, not particularly titillating. That said, it’s fairly enjoyable for a film of its ilk. Those who long for the days of grindhouse cinema will be thrilled to find a top-notch release of such an obscure picture.

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