Skeptics exploit believers until the supernatural force they’ve mimicked for money proves fatally real! It’s a premise that’s been done to death, which was reason enough for me to avoid The Cleansing Hour when it played Fantastic Fest last year. Well, that was my mistake. Last night, I watched it at home, and now low-key resent past-me who missed out on what would have been an awesome see-it-with-a-crowd experience. Good news for you: it’s still a total blast for at-home viewing.
New to Shudder, The Cleansing Hour centers on a production team that stages fake exorcisms to scare up audiences and hawk religious-themed merch. They are a skeleton crew made up of a tattooed special effects master (Daniel Hoffmann-Gill), a surly production assistant (Emma Holzer), a stoner sound guy (Chris Lew Kum Hoi), and a high-strung producer called Drew (Kyle Gallner). The star of the show is Father Max, a priest who pronounces Bible passages with the same swagger he delivers in drunken karaoke bar performances. He’s debonair, devilishly good looking, and he’s played by Ryan Guzman of The Boy Next Door fame.
Each episode, smoke and mirrors make a “possessed” actor chained to an altar chair seem menacing, then Father Max reads the teleprompter’s exorcism rites, and poof—a soul is saved and prayer cloths are sold. Yet, the show’s success is middling. It’s enough to pay the bills and lure in some sin-seeking groupies, but not enough to even get them a verified Twitter account! Friends since they were altar boys, Drew and Max are desperate to turn the show into a must-see property. But be careful what you pray for. When Drew has his fiancée Lane (Alix Angelis) fill in for an MIA actress, the stage is set for a real demon to steal the spotlight.
The plot is thin, with much of the action taking place in one hour-long episode of the fictional show, on the small stage that’s dressed like an eccentric sacristy. However, screenwriters Damien LeVeck and Aaron Horwitz know how to make the most out of it. Directed by LeVeck, The Cleansing Hour is a lean and mean thrill ride that barrels down on its corrupt crew, spewing forth tortures gruesome and excitingly unexpected. There will be blood, boils, bile, flames, melted flesh, and creepy creatures, unfurled in shocking and deliciously scary set pieces. As the possessed fiancée, Angelis will writhe, snarl, and spit heinous commands with a sinister smirk, transforming from a vision of female loveliness to a gnarled nightmare of vengeance.
Through these scares, LeVeck and Horwitz knit an intense drama about friendship and the ache of growing apart. The demon pushes Drew and Max into torturous scenarios, demanding they reveal the lies they’ve told the public and each other. Sometimes this makes for mischievous fun, like the hunky Guzman stripping down to all that God gave him. Other times, it means unfurling memories that kick into grisly flashbacks of childhood trauma. These scenes allow The Cleansing Hour to escape the confines of its setting, as do cutaways to audience members around the world. At first, I feared these bits would basically be filler to wedge in some bonus scares and cheap comic relief. Or worse, they’d bleed the claustrophobic terror out of the tense centerpiece. However, much like the demon toying with the boys, the screenwriters have something bigger, bolder, and more twisted in mind.
Admittedly, things get a bit clunky in the final act when one last reveal between friends feels far more clichéd than earned. Still, like Shudder’s recent surprise hit The Host, The Cleansing Hour is a sharply executed and satisfyingly scary film, giving fresh life to a subgenre that’s fallen too often into dusty tropes. With a clear appreciation for well-executed gore, LeVeck paces the plot alongside a generous helping of ghoulish scares. A go-for-broke cast gives gut-punching weight to the central trio’s life-or-death battle of lies and loyalty, while the ticking clock of the webcast’s time-slot shrewdly amps up the suspense. Altogether, this makes for a film that is fun, frightening, and smugly surprising, especially as it strides smoothly into a final beat that will leave you drop-jawed.
The Cleansing Hour is now on Shudder.
Header Image Source: Shudder