[FrightFest Review] Shudder's 'The Cleansing Hour' Needs More than A Prayer to Exorcise Its Demons
Damien Levacks’ The Cleansing Hour, having recently played at FrightFest Glasgow, stars Ryan Guzman and Kyle Gallner as two lifelong friends who run a live streaming exorcism web series from which the movie takes its name. “The Cleansing Hour” is produced by Drew (Gallner) and features “Father” Max (Guzman) as an internet priest persona who dramatically heals the possessed to the captivated terror of viewers around the world...
...As many skeptics might suspect, the “possessed '' are in reality hired actors. The story takes off when the protagonists are confronted with the actual demonic possession of Drew’s girlfriend Lane (Alix Angeles). Once the authentic Demon takes hold, the facade of the show unravels and the true horror begins.
Given the amount of stellar exorcism based films already in existence, creating an original and compelling version is a bold undertaking. Levack and co-writer Aaron Horwitz do their best to firmly construct a character-driven piece that focuses more on the relationship between its characters than solely on the demonic possession aspects. A unique element of the movie involves the relationship with the series’ fans, some of which are introduced early on and remain close as the chaos ensues. Viewers' perspectives are seen in online chat rooms as the exorcism unfolds and it’s cool to watch as they learn the truth about Max and Drew, and themselves. It’s a compelling look at our world and the way we watch and interact with media. The screenwriters clearly emphasized the web series angle, which is understandable, and for the most part it works.
However, it’s when they do lean into the horror that everything truly clicks. One would wonder if they didn’t play so heavily with the social commentary aspects that the film might have struck a deeper meaning. The strong performances, particularly by the possessed Lane, could have carried the plot further than the slow build-up of minor characters used ad nauseam as filler to be fed to the demon. These victims lack context and the acting is unremarkable, with the exception of Riley (Emma Holzer) who lands her performance as an intern who clearly wants to be anywhere else but working. The movie succeeds the most when possessed Lane (voiced brilliantly by Tara Karsian) is in the driver seat and secrets between the three leads are unveiled. These moments almost rival those of classic exorcism films and take over the minds of the audience as quickly as the lacking, lumbering moments cause them to leave.
Something happens early on in this movie that isn’t overly troublesome, but still warrants comment. The film goes out of its way to draw attention to the uncertainty of the gender of a character, a drag queen that Max wants to hire as an actor in an episode of the show. The pronoun used to describe this person is first “he” with a correction to “she.” This in itself is rare and wonderful and the chance to see inclusion is always welcomed in the genre. However, that leads to a problem because this character is in the film for approximately two minutes to briefly wander around and then die. The filmmakers here aren’t actively trying to do anything evil, but it doesn’t sit well and honestly doesn’t move the plot forward or give the actor any time to shine in a role. The character is merely a plot device - her failure to show is the mechanism to get Drew’s girlfriend Lane to act for the episode. There needs to be a clear and concerted purpose behind it or it feels like adding an element for something different, just to immediately take it away. It also happens to be the first kill of the film and, quite frankly, the minority character dying first follows a pretty historically bad trope.
Overall, The Cleansing Hour is a fun time with more flaws than strengths, but the journey is worth at least the price of admission and recommended for the bonkers ending, if nothing else. When it commits to being a horror film it works and when it doesn’t it meets middling to poor results. When this arrives on Shudder later this year, it’s bound to find an audience.
By Justin Drabek
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