The Cleansing Hour (2019)
One of my favorite on-set stories from the legendarily tumultuous production of Michael Cimino’s mega bomb Heaven’s Gate was recounted by the brilliant cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond (Oscar-winner, Close Encounters of the Third Kind) in Final Cut, a documentary about the making of the would-be Western epic. Zsigmond hilariously details the way Cimino stood on a hill, staring at a cloud, waiting for it to move into “just the right position” for the next shot. This being a professional production, union rules kicked in and the entire crew went on meal penalty as well as time-and-a-half. In other words, thousands of dollars were being wasted for every minute the megalomaniacal director delayed the shot. It’s standard policy for lunch to be a specifically set-aside time, so as Zsigmond tells it, he approached Cimino “who was in a haze of creating and I said, ‘Michael, what about lunch?’ And Michael spun around and said, ‘Lunch?! This is bigger than lunch!’” It’s both funny and bonkers at the same time. It’s a great example of someone’s priorities being completely out of whack. Worrying about nonsense while real problems are occurring. It’s this attention to petty bullshit which hampers the otherwise entertaining possession horror film The Cleansing Hour from being more than a millennial twist on The Exorcist, internet stardom, and cinematic skullduggery.
Beginning as a short film (where it should’ve stayed), appropriately-named director/co-writer Damien LeVeck’s demonic possession yarn revolves around a live-streaming web series where a purportedly real priest will perform exorcisms in one hour or less or your money back. The idea of a charlatan holy man preying on the fears of average folks for profit is a novel one. If it weren’t for the dreaded 90-minute runtime requirement, the film could easily have been fantastic. As it stands now, a late twist results in absolutely useless squabbling about relationships and love while a literal Satanic beast threatens to destroy the planet. The production values on The Cleansing Hour are top-notch for an obviously low-budget affair. The cinematography by Jean-Philippe Bernier is all shadowy gloom and doom and sets the right tone, which should be expected from the DP of Turbo Kid and Summer of 84. Juliette and Sean Beavan’s score is nothing special, but it doesn’t impede upon the action onscreen while LeVeck’s (a longtime television editor) editing style is clean. He understands how to build tension and his cutaways to the global reactions of random viewers gives the film some scale. His story finally runs out of steam when we get more than enough bargain-basement Exorcist riffs from our standard-issue possessed girl.
Forever put-upon A/V geek Drew (Kyle Gallner, Red State) pretty much runs “The Cleansing Hour” while his cocky, arrogant childhood buddy Max (Ryan Guzman, Heroes Reborn) reaps all of the benefits that come with being a sexy, heroic priest saving souls one day at a time and shilling fake religious “merch.” The film opens with an intense exorcism sequence complete with flickering lights, demonic talk, and blood pouring out of the victim’s head. Of course, it all works out thanks to the “bravery” of Father Max and the live stream concludes with a reminder to subscribe, hashtag and snag some “Vatican-approved prayer cloths.” Father Max bangs a groupie while Drew complains to his fiancée Lane (Alix Angelis, The Magnificent Seven) about the show having “plateaued” in viewership. She urges him to quit and work for his father’s tech company, whose latest product, a pair of Google Glass-style smart glasses, have arrived for him to try out. Lane’s not a fan of Max, but when an actor fails to show up for their latest phony exorcism, she begrudgingly steps in to play the possessed girl while Max preens about, acting high and mighty.
This trio of performers are legitimate actors and they perform their roles adequately. Guzman makes for an amusing asshole whom you can’t wait to see get his comeuppance while remaining somewhat sympathetic, particularly since the film becomes his own redemptive tale. Gallner and particularly Angelis bring a welcome intensity to the proceedings, with Angelis’ transformation introducing a strong but unfortunately much less potty-mouthed version of Regan into the 21st century. The rest of the cast is thinly drawn and merely act as so much cannon fodder for the demon’s malevolent games. A boom operator hallucinates Poltergeist-style about blood pouring out of him and an odd skin condition. A special effects whiz gets brutally set on fire and a snobby PA - who scoffs, “You don’t shoot in 4K? That’s ghetto,” - gets skewered by a flying statue. She’s a PA, though, so nobody cares. A well-constructed but completely unnecessary-to-the-plot scare scene takes place outside of the studio, where a drag queen friend of Max’s gets attacked by demonic hobos in a nod to John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness. It’s a perfectly fine scene, but leads to nothing and somewhat negates the way the demon's powers stay within the studio for most of the film.
Looking scraggly and sporting bright white eyes, possessed Lane puts Max through his paces, forcing him to admit that he’s a false priest and that the entire show is a lie. There’s a streak of black humor running through the film, none more pronounced than when “The Hokey Pokey Song” begins to play and Max is forced to stick his hand into a spinning fan and step on broken glass. That’s what the song is all about after all, right? Lane begins to choke and Max pulls out an entire gooey prayer cloth from her mouth, which turns out to be not-so-much “Vatican approved” but rather “crap from China.” When he goes in to pull out another cloth, he gets a few fingers bitten off for his trouble.
The demon chastises Max for worrying about his own “public perception rather than human value.” The presumption comes into focus that this demon, though violent and evil (let’s not forget there are three corpses lying nearby), is just trying to expose Max for what he is and force him to question his own life choices. It’s a great idea, bringing about the ambiguity of who really is the evil one in this situation, although in my opinion, murdering people might be just a tad worse than pretending to be a priest on an obscure web series. Max very nearly hangs himself with an electrical cord. Unfortunately, it’s around this point that the movie loses its footing.
Remember, people are dead and the situation is dire, yet when the revelation arrives that Max and Lane hooked up before Drew and she were engaged, Drew is royally pissed. I can understand a 10-second moment of sadness and shock, but instead, we get an extended sequence where Drew tries to kill Max. Doesn’t he realize that not only is this situation bigger than any of them, but it literally doesn’t matter since Lane obviously despises Max and loves Drew? It’s petty, contrived, ridiculous, and nonsensical. It’s a seemingly desperate attempt to add some emotional depth to a story which already had a compelling core concept of redemption and repentance. Max and Drew patch things up, but the film’s rhythm is damaged and never entirely recovers.
More special effects, including snaky possessed electrical cords that trap Drew, then Max reads off some religious rites which will exorcise Lane’s demon. It works, or so they think. It turns out the Devil is one helluva web designer and the site that pointed Drew to the incantation was actually a ruse to summon Satan himself. This is shown through a delightfully gooey transformation scene in which a horned monstrosity breaks his way through Lane’s skin. It’s an impressive display of practical effects by Oscar-winner Tom Woodruff Jr. (Death Becomes Her). The only drawback is the obviously computer-generated devil face. It’s a bit too synthetic for my taste.
Throughout the film, we’ve been treated to a variety of different viewers in Texas, Israel, South Korea, L.A., and Washington, D.C.; all of whom watch in rapt and horrified attention. Once the devil stares into the camera, each of the watchers’ eyes turn white and they go on a protracted and brutal killing spree. Even a child with an over-sized teddy bear attacks his mother and father, who happens to be the President of the United States. I’ll admit that I kind of wanted to see the Secret Service gun the kid down, or at least tackle him. Spreading across the globe, we’re treated to an apocalyptic “murder epidemic” where martial law is declared against the “white-eyed crazies.” It’s an ambitious ending told through the customary use of news reports and very nearly redeems the film’s earlier stumble.
There’s a great deal of fun mixed with some absolutely nonsensical touches. The cheesy opening of the online show is gloriously dumb and grandiose; perfectly in tune with Max’s oversized ego and vision of himself. A recurring element that appears throughout The Cleansing Hour’s runtime is a flashback showing Max and Drew being abused by a cruel nun until she’s finally stabbed in the eye with a pencil by Max. A very amusing bit occurs when Max is getting an early-morning blow job from his latest squeeze but it turns into a scary BJ when he sees the decayed corpse of the nun under his covers. Guess she used too much teeth. There’s a running message board which features some pretty amusing comments like “Eat a dick, pap” but there’s also a ludicrous magic computer that has giant warning signs about “signal loss” and in the best tradition of people who don’t know how computers work in movies, Drew furiously types bullshit until he fixes it. The film is derivative of The Exorcist, Poltergeist, Hellraiser, and a few other films, but it does have its own ideas and remains fairly original, although Friedkin’s classic looms the largest over the material.
The Cleansing Hour may have worked completely had it been a literal hour. There’s padding and a few useless side plots which detract from what is a solid idea for a film. It’s made with craftsmanship and know-how, but a rewrite here and a trim there might’ve made this a fully successful horror film.