By ROCCO THOMPSON
Starring: Ryan Guzman, Kyle Gallner, Alix Angelis
Directed by Damien LeVeck
Written by Damien LeVeck, Aaron Horwitz
Evil receives an update in THE CLEANSING HOUR, Shudder’s modern demonic possession joint from Damien LeVeck, based on he and Aaron Horwitz’s 2016 short of the same name.
Max (Ryan Guzman, The Boy Next Door) is a sham priest who hosts The Cleansing Hour, a popular web series in which he performs live, staged exorcisms to the delight of hundreds of thousands of subscribers. Though the studly padre gets all the money and adoration, his best friend and collaborator, Drew (Kyle Gallner, Jennifer’s Body) pulls the strings behind the scenes: making sure that the special effects go off without a hitch. With the pals under increasing pressure to grow their viewership, they get more than they bargained for when Drew’s fiancée, Lane (Alix Angelis) is forced to step in at the last minute for a no-show actor – falling victim to a real-life possession. With their careers on the line and Cleansing Hour fans glued to their screens across the world, Max and Drew will have to keep their wits about them to tangle with a nameless demonic entity that’s hungry to go viral.
LeVeck and Horwitz are obviously well-versed in the horror genre, but struggle to break the mold, despite THE CLEANSING HOUR’s of-the-moment hook. Most every gag feels like a hand-me-down from The Exorcist (1973) or any number of possession films that came after it, and the script doesn’t come through with enough self-awareness or subversion to make things feel fresh. There are some set pieces and elements that feel novel (a hokey pokey game from hell and an online database of Satan’s cohorts, for example), but everything else is very trope-y, especially in contrast to the ultra-modern setup. LeVeck does triple duty editing, with Jean-Philippe Bernier (Turbo Kid) serving as DP, and, visually, THE CLEANSING HOUR falls into a similar trap, with slick, well-considered visual styling that makes next to no impression because it looks and feels so much like everything else that wants to snatch the Shudder Original label.
Guzman and Gallner are great fun to watch, and there’s a lot of humor in the idea that anyone at all could be fooled by the former’s Harlequin Romance holy man. Angelis is obviously having a blast: gnawing off fingers, roaring with manic glee, and giving perfectly-timed comic shoulder shrugs as the possessed fiancée. Though there’s a bit of an over-reliance on CGI (and it’s jussssst rough enough to take you right out of the action), the late film does bring some gloopy practical goodness to the table in service of a jaw-dropping finale that makes one wish what came before had such cheek and daring. But of course, better to go out with a bang than blow your wad prematurely, and THE CLEANSING HOUR gets points there.
Ultimately, what’s probably most frustrating about THE CLEANSING HOUR is how little it has to say about the white whale of online clicks and views. There’s nothing wrong with a shallow, thrill-a-minute demonic possession flick, but LeVeck and Horwitz do attempt to inject some social commentary into the proceedings, which almost feels as if it holds the film back from going full bore Sam Raimi. There’s also the perfunctory criticism of the Catholic Church which, though possibly a bit meatier, feels similarly limp.
As substantial as a communion wafer and marginally more enjoyable than Sunday school, THE CLEANSING HOUR feels torn between a funhouse style sensibility and the pretense of “saying something.” Though it goes out on a high note, LeVeck and Horwitz simply can’t quite go the distance in delivering a story that’s as fun or sharp as their wicked setup would suggest. Technically competent and filled with able performances, THE CLEANSING HOUR is a good enough time to add it to this year’s Halloween rotation, but it’s not a film to hit subscribe (or sell your soul) for.
THE CLEANSING HOUR is streaming now on Shudder.