At this point in history, the demonic possession sub-genre has covered all bases. For every The Exorcist, there are a dozen films that try but ultimately fall short of leaving a lasting impression. The tropes of people in over their heads with the supernatural while examining their own faith has been done to death. Though the Damien LeVeck-helmed The Cleansing Hour might seem like more of the same, what we get is a great story that pulls the rug out from under you, over and over again.
What makes The Cleansing Hour work, is how LeVeck and Company (the film was co-written by LeVeck and Aaron Horwitz) know what kind of film they’re making. When you know what your audience expects, it opens up the possibilities for a bait and switch, something the film excels at. For the first quarter of the film, you find out that online exorcist Max (Ryan Guzman), is a phony. The tropes and found in the film’s first quarter might be enough to make viewer initially shake their heads but that’s part of the magic with this one. It allows its viewer to get comfortable, thinking they know what’s in store and every beat and measure they’re about to experience. Max runs a popular (but not quite there) online show, where each week he gets rid of demons and sells Vatican-approved merch to anyone foolish enough to buy it.
Max’s lifelong best friend, Drew (a great Kyle Gallner) does the heavy lifting, with very little recognition thrown his way. Going into the film, you can see where a wedge between the two developing. Throwing a third lead, Lane (Alix Angelis) into the mix, we can also see that the soon to be married Drew and Lane can only truly be happy, when Drew distances himself from the arrogant, false prophet Max.
A lot of that setup may seem like the melodrama we see so often in this type of film. But where The Cleansing Hour succeeds, is in how it takes those tropes and throws quite a few curveballs into the mix. A bad judgment call leads to Lane stepping in for an actor pretending to be possessed and when the real man downstairs possesses her, we’re give a solid look at two men coming to terms with not only the cracks in their friendship, but also their own personal and professional ethics.
Guzman plays Max with gusto, amping up his scripted rituals but when real danger appears, the actor gets introspective and shows a side of the character that we don’t get to see often in possession films. Max is a character with a lifetime of disbelief and resentment, so being faced with the real thing, the choice to believe against all else works for the film and not against it.
Gallner’s Drew is another excellent touch, coming off like a friend who just wants to have his bud’s back, even when he doesn’t deserve it. Gallner has such a knack for taking characters and adding authenticity to them and The Cleansing Hour is another great example of just that. A morality tale about two men having to decide if their past will define their future and if they truly believe in what they’ve spent their entire lives claiming to believe.
The effects work (heavily practical) adds more charm to the experience, featuring creature designs by legends Alec Gillis and Tom Woodruff Jr. Between the story, the effects and an excellent score by Sean and Juliette Beavan, The Cleansing Hour is an entertaining ride, one that takes familiar tropes and does something completely unexpected with them. Definitely one to watch for.
The Cleansing Hour is now available to watch, via Shudder.