Anyone who’s spent a significant amount of time on social media knows how evil it can be. The Cleansing Hour, a grisly shocker anchored by terrific performances and deadpan humor, adds a modern twist to the possession story and uses the living embodiment of evil to highlight the dangers of social media. Director Damien LeVeck’s story of hypocrisy, guilt, and the abuse of power is a sharp blend of social critique and entertainment, giving viewers plenty to think about while they absorb each new scare.
Max (Ryan Guzman) and Drew (Kyle Gallner) are lifelong friends who run a webcast that claims to feature real exorcisms. In reality, they operate out of a soundstage rigged with spooky practical effects and featuring a rotating troupe of actors who have to sign NDAs in order to participate. “Father” Max expels a demon every week in front of about 500,000 live stream viewers, thanking the audience for their prayers and even peddling “Vatican-approved” merchandise for his followers’ spiritual edification.
Drew and Max are both frustrated with their inability to pass the half-million views mark: Drew wants to branch out to séances and ghost hunting, while Max wants to stick with exorcisms and make them flashier with bigger pyrotechnics and gimmicky casting. When Max’s friend Dante (Amrou Al-Kadhi), a drag queen who has been hired as the possession victim of the week, fails to show up to the set, Drew’s fiancée Lane (Alix Angelis) has to take over the role at the last minute. As the cameras roll, Max and the crew soon realize that their fake exorcism has become very real, and they have to work together to figure out how to expel the demon before it kills them all.
The Cleansing Hour is efficient in its storytelling, adding small but vital details and making great use of its strong cast to establish the relationships early on so that the film can dive right into the horror. Guzman and Gallner both give fantastic performances that convey the depth of their characters’ friendship as well as the tensions and resentments that have built up between them over the years. Special mention must also be given to Angelis for her physical performance: the film wouldn’t work without her eerie contortions and gleeful tauntings as the demon manipulates its way through the webcast.
The demon’s motivations aren’t perfectly clear until the end, but it is obvious that it wants a confession out of Max for duping his followers with his fake piety and expensive “prayer cloths.” LeVeck shows viewers all over the world reacting to the exorcism as it progresses from shockingly realistic gore and violence to Max’s confession of betrayal. Often these scenes provide much needed comic relief, which is something the film excels at: the cast members, from the stars all the way down to the extras, are hilarious in their dry delivery of perfectly timed jokes and reaction shots.
Though the humor is well executed and welcome in tense moments, it never overshadows the horror. An early scene of a skittering demon in an alleyway is pure nightmare fuel, as is the first unearthly growl that the demon lets out as the viewer realizes that Lane isn’t just Lane anymore. The special effects are impressive, particularly in the bloody and anarchic final moments. This is a creepy and disturbing film that surprises viewers at every turn.
As plot points and character beats fall into place, each moment feels earned yet inevitable, tying together the film’s themes into one bloody, satisfying whole. Max and Drew’s sins catch up with them and intertwine with their disenchantment with the Catholic Church. The live stream viewers are implicated in the sin as well as they stare at their screens and type out comments that are often cruel or obscene. As the demon says, “Nobody’s innocent.” The Cleansing Hour ends on a bitterly dark note that spares no one in its condemnation of human nature. Social media may be evil, but that’s because it’s just another institution that we created in our own image.
The Cleansing Hour begins streaming today exclusively on Shudder.