In “The Cleansing Hour,” online fame is the greatest evil

The Cleansing Hour Alix Angelis and Ryan Guzman in The Cleansing Hour. (Shudder)

Damien LeVeck’s adaptation of his own short film takes a sharp premise and pads it out to feature-length.

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In what might be the most fitting rags-to-riches story to hit the screen in a while, Max (Ryan Guzman) has made it. Well, he’s made it on the outside and, most importantly, in his own eyes. As a kid, he suffered from an abusive Catholic schoolteacher. Now he’s all grown up, but rather than let his Catholic guilt runneth over, he’s channeled it into his profession, which is as self-made as it is oh-so millennial. But that’s not to say he’s a good person.

In fact, he’s quite terrible—a narcissist, a misogynist, and an opportunist. He stars in a web show called The Cleansing Hour in which he performs (read: stages) exorcisms. It’s a huge hit, not the least in thanks to childhood friend and former schoolmate Drew (Kyle Gallner). Drew does all the work alongside his girlfriend, Lane (Alix Angelis), and others. Max inexplicably gets all the girls and glory. It takes more than a bit of suspension of disbelief to see this show as something that’d result in this much success, largely because the movie itself doesn’t have its themes that well mapped out.

It sounds good in theory. The hook here isn’t just that Max is terrible. It’s that one night when Lane has to play a possessed woman on the show, a demon actually shows itself. Yes, Lane is super possessed, and the demon is holding Max’s feet to the fire. When the movie works, it’s a modest enough riff on The Evil Dead with some fittingly squeamish body horror and a few decent performances. But The Cleansing Hour is too bare in ideas and execution to stick the landing and, at its worst, it’s closer to Blumhouse’s Truth or Dare.

The Cleansing Hour

Rest assured, it never gets that stupid. It does, however, lack enough material to fill its 89-minute runtime. Its set-pieces provide diminishing returns; the comedy can lack enough irony to effectively skewer its targets. The bigger issue, though, is its attempts at social commentary. Max quite literally sells his friends, body and soul, for Internet fame. That’s a strong allegory. The problem is that The Cleansing Hour isn’t savvy enough to have the generational specificity it aims for. How Max’s conservative upbringing leads to utter hedonism doesn’t fully tie into its commentary on online influencers, rendering the satire a bit dulled.

Some of this comes from its peripheral characters. Aside from Max, Drew, and Lane are a few others involved in the show’s production (Chris Lew Kum Hoi, Daniel Hoffmann-Gill, Emma Holzer). Alas, they get nothing to do. Their roles as demon fodder are the least imaginative, and their fates only pad out the movie. They’re each a secondary aspect to the wider allegory, sure, but these characters make zero impression. If anything, it distracts from the main dynamics.

The same goes for the movie’s only look at Max’s larger impact. Damien LeVeck & Aaron Howitz’s script has the requisite act one pieces (namely future one-night-stands recognizing and fawning over the star). Later in the movie, Max’s impact is only really conveyed through habitual cutaways to people across the world watching the live stream. The movie doesn’t glean anything from them, and it never feels specific to the Internet. As a result, the overall context feels more like window dressing than anything specific to current day. It often plays like a short film adapted to feature-length, and it so happens that that’s what LeVeck, who also directed, did here.

It’s a movie that prides itself on being timely, but only its timeless qualities make an impact. The body horror is playful and well-staged at first, at least before it runs out of ideas. The technical filmmaking, on the other hand, doesn’t really catch the eye with its grimy patina palette. That leaves it up to the performers, and they thankfully do quite well for what they’re working with. Angelis gives a nice presence even while switching in and out of possession and Gallner, while working with an underdeveloped role, highlights its own contradictions. Strangely enough, Guzman makes the least of a splash.

Maybe that’s the point. He is a total hack after all, and his continued inability to learn only welcomes him to circle the drain. Most surprising is that The Cleansing Hour lands its ending the most, even if it is too little and too late by that point. Over a dozen million people may be watching Max’s show online, but it’s hard to imagine his movie having nearly as much of an impact.

The Cleansing Hour possesses Shudder on Thursday, October 8.

The Cleansing Hour Trailer:

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