The ‘possession’ subgenre has been done to death, but writer and director Damien LeVeck’s The Cleansing Hour gives it a few modern twists that make this Shudder exclusive a pretty good time. LeVeck and co-writer Aaron Horwitz throw as many ideas as they can come up with into their screenplay, taking a simple premise to truly unexpected places. Not all of them work, and the film sometimes still struggles to shrug off possession tropes, but there’s just enough cleverness and wit put into the script and the performances of the cast that manage to keep things surprising and entertaining.
‘The Cleansing Hour’ is a livestreamed show that stages fake exorcisms for their thousands of followers. Despite its overly dramatic presentations of demonic possessions and its tacky graphics hawking merchandise that is “Vatican Approved”, the stream has seemingly duped the majority of its viewers into believing that what they’re seeing is real. It’s hosted by Father Max (Ryan Guzman), who shouts random bible verses and douses demons with holy water to cure his patients, and is directed and produced by his best friend, Drew (Kyle Gallner), who has compiled an online database of demons and scripture and feeds lines and directions into the ears of the actors.
Once the cameras are off, Max lives like a sleazy rock star, partying at bars and sleeping with fans. Life is good – at least it will be once Max finally gets that blue checkmark on Twitter. Things take a wild and dangerous turn when Drew’s wife, Lane (Alix Angelis), has to fill in for an absent actor, and becomes the vessel for actual demonic possession. Max is forced to humiliate himself in front of his audience, and as viewership skyrockets, his punishments turn far deadlier. Max and Drew now have to pull off a real exorcism, and should they fail, the consequences threaten to be much larger in scale than they could ever imagine.
The film seems to put everything you possibly can into a horror movie to varying degrees of success. There are gruesome scenes of gore and gross-out violence that might appeal to Saw fans, obvious tropes taken from The Exorcist and similar films, and even a more emotional backstory for Max and Drew when they attended Catholic school led by a torturous nun. But The Cleansing Hour is at its best when it’s trying to be funny, and the way a lot of its humor feels very tongue-in-cheek. There are cuts to people watching the livestream on their phones or TVs throughout the film, and their reactions to what they’re watching are consistently hilarious.
What’s not very funny is the demon-possessed Lane being reduced to nothing more than a Scary Movie-esque imitation of Linda Blair’s Regan MacNeil; forced to wink at the camera and deliver lines like “Keep it 100” or “Don’t do drugs, kids” after scenes of graphic mutilation. And what’s not funny at all is the introduction of a drag queen character who is killed off before so much as uttering a single line. Personal drama between the three main characters also comes far too late and feels ridiculously unimportant when compared to where the situation has gone to at that point.
If you’re able to look past these, then The Cleansing Hour proves itself to be a wildly amusing and genuinely humorous watch. It’s admirable just how much the film runs with its concept and takes it through original, and often hysterical, twists and turns. Though it’s hard to figure out what exactly Max has done so wrong to deserve everything he goes through. Is what he’s been doing really that bad?