Released: 8th October
Seen: 12th October
Ever since The Exorcist, the horror genre has treated the idea of demonic possession in a fairly standard way. Introduce a likeable protagonist, have her start behaving strangely, find some way to isolate her and bring in some priests, oops she’s actually the devil and now they have to yell bible verses at her until she returns to the likeable protagonist stage. Along the way some characters might die, some others might have a crisis of faith but in general, that’s the way exorcism movies have gone. It’s very rare for someone to try a new tactic in the exorcism genre of film but fortunately for us, the people behind The Cleansing Hour tried something new and did a great job of it.
Father Max (Ryan Guzman) is a well-known exorcist with his own internet show that just happens to share the title of our film, The Cleansing Hour. To all who watch, Father Max is a hero helping out those who need it but in reality, he has been faking every exorcism along with the help of his tech-savvy friend Drew (Kyle Gallner). Sadly, their time faking exorcisms has come to an end because on the day they try to fake one with Drew’s fiancé Lane (Alix Angelis) strapped into the chair an actual demonic presence turns up to force them to repent for everything they’ve ever done wrong and to see if they can handle it when an actual demon from hell turns up.
In terms of ways to refresh the Exorcism subgenre, I have to admit this is the most interesting one I’ve seen. Having people who fake exorcisms having to suddenly deal with a real one gives this film a freshness because the characters don’t know what they’re dealing with, they’re going to make some horrific mistakes and that awkward lack of knowledge helps create some great tension. It’s also fun seeing them trying to figure out what’s real and what’s fake, considering that their fake exorcisms were pretty impressive… and used a lot less CGI than the actual one.
It’s probably trivial to point out but the CGI this film uses for certain shots, like a person on fire or a ladder being thrown, are not good. They feel like they’ve been lit by an alternative source and don’t blend into the actual picture and you will notice them… and if you’re a horror nerd like me you will probably wonder why it wasn’t just a practical effect. It distracts from the actual action of the film enough that you can’t avoid noticing and considering the good practical effects that are there it hurts to see the bad CGI stuff that stands out.
What also stands out is that this film has a bit of a tone issue at times, namely surrounding the demon who will occasionally behave more like Deadpool than a demon. There are literally shots where it turns directly to the camera to deliver a one-liner which feels silly rather than scary. They also seem to just brush over major moments of character growth, our main character will reveal a major sin from his past and the film goes “No, not enough, MORE!” and we don’t get to deal with this bombshell that’s been dropped.
It sucks that we don’t get to spend a lot of time on some of these sinful moments because the cast is fantastic. While in reality, it’s a giant cast that ends up spreading around the globe (which helps with the absolutely bonkers climax of the film), for our purposes, it’s basically a three-person play between the two friends and Lane who is possessed by a demon. When it’s just those three bouncing off each other, the film has such incredible energy to it. It’s shocking and clever, they set up the rules for this movie very quickly and are careful not to break them. The main cast is genuinely exciting and fun to watch.
Some cast members don’t even try to hide their status as cannon fodder, one character literally just kind of vanishes for half the film only to return when we need someone to do something messed up (Though, to be fair, his return is gloriously messed up). It feels like they underwrote everyone who wasn’t one of the lead three but also knew they needed to keep them around to accomplish the ending that they’d planned, which makes for some awkward moments… I mean, maybe it’s just me but if I saw someone suddenly catch fire and another person vomit blood on a live stream I wouldn’t be demanding that the host strip naked and do the hokey pokey (one of the sillier moments of the film).
I get that they were building to something big about the influence of social media, literally using people’s cell phones as a method of getting them to watch a demonic possession is not subtle but at times it’s just a little much. I can buy an entire bar watching on their cell phones, I draw a line at this exorcism streaming over Times Square (Seriously, how many movies have that shot where the evil act is streamed in Times Square? It always looks so wrong).
What keeps making this work, despite the numerous flaws, is the absolutely committed performances by the main cast who just go for broke with every single scene they have. It’s that kind of compelling performances that make something like The Cleansing Hour work in the end, making you want to see these characters beat the demon and find the way out. Admittedly the ending is a mixed bag of gloriously nutty and a bit of a fumble (they could’ve cut out the last minute with the main cast and been fine) but everyone is just so committed to it that it’s still enjoyable.
The Cleansing Hour is a shocking in your face exorcism movie that doesn’t hold back for anything, it runs at a thousand miles an hour without care and while that means it sometimes falls flat on its face and needs to take a second to get back on track, it’s still a very enjoyable experience.