Films like Grave Encounters and The Last Exorcism have created an enduring modern horror trope: the media-savvy showman whose staged flirtations with the paranormal suddenly become all too real. The Cleansing Hour, the latest in Shudder‘s stable of Originals, won’t represent a particularly novel take on this trope. Where it outshines some of its rivals, however, is in its raucous sense of fun.
The Cleansing Hour is a streaming internet show in which priest Father Max (Ryan Guzman) performs live exorcisms on hapless slaves of the devil. His childhood friend Drew (Kyle Gallner) is the real brains behind the operation, putting the show together, directing the action and monitoring a feed full of their adoring fans. With some special-effect smoke and mirrors, and Max’s trademark good looks and charisma, the pair are able to captivate their online audience (and make a killing in merch sales).
When an actress no-shows them at the last minute, Drew’s fiancée (Alix Angelis) is forced to step in to provide their damsel in distress. The trouble is, her performance is a little too good…
Although it shares some DNA with The Last Exorcism, this is not a film concerned with uncertainty or ambiguity. Seconds after Lane’s possession, it is unambiguously true that we’re in demonville. What follows is a fairly relentless ordeal, as the team is forced to confess their numerous sins in order to keep Lane (and themselves) alive.
There’s some commentary about the casual cruelty and fickle nature of online fanbases, but for the most part this isn’t a film concerned with making a deep point about internet culture. Instead, it treats us to a gruelling and grotty ordeal in which excessive violence (a mixture of impressive physical effects and slightly underwhelming CG) is the order of the day.
The dynamic of the two leads is key here. The arrogant swagger of Max rubs abrasively against the put-upon surliness of the overshadowed Drew. As the film progresses, Max is brought low and the pair are made to confront their own childhood traumas and personal betrayals. It’s an effective double act, and the two performers play off each other convincingly.
Once the film gets going, there’s demon dogs and flying equipment to contend with, and the filmmakers do a sterling job of consistently maintaining the tension and heightening the stakes, even in the midst of the madness.
To say that the film is derivative is probably fair. After all, most of the set-pieces, scares and visuals are borrowed wholesale from other films. Much like the web series at the film’s heart – which is a clear rip-off of The Exorcist –The Cleansing Hour isn’t going to wow anyone with its originality. Angelis’ performance as the demoniac, for example, although physically impressive, could have been lifted from a thousand other possession horrors.
What it does deliver, however, is an unrelenting battery of chaos. Once the film reaches its third act, it’s a lot of fun to suspend your disbelief and allow yourself to be swept along by its commitment to mayhem. Despite the darkness of the subject matter, the cheesy humour and subtly tongue-in-cheek tone make it a light and easy watch, perfect for a Halloween viewing.