‘The Cleansing Hour’ review: Dir. Damien LeVeck [Shudder Saturday]

We’ve all seen plenty of films that deal with priests performing exorcisms. Typically they all seem to do the same thing, well that was until director Damien LeVeck’s The Cleansing Hour. Set in our modem social media and fame hungry society, we follow online ‘exorcist for hire’ Father Max (Ryan Guzman). Max headlines a series of live-streamed exorcisms on his show – The Cleansing Hour, the brain child of Max himself and his best friend Drew (Kyle Gallner). Whilst professing itself as real, the show is in truth one big hoax. That is until the series captures the attention of an actual demon. As the world watches on, Max must do battle with evil for real.

The Cleansing Hour has a great concept, one that started life as a short (also directed by LeVeck). Often scaling up short format films to feature-length causes issues, especially with plotting and pacing. There’s no such trouble here, with LeVeck using his extra run time to delve into the fame and social media obsession of our culture. When we first meet Max he’s agonising over the lack of the little blue checkmark next to his Twitter handle. LeVeck explores our need for social media validation, something which sometimes comes at the cost of actual validation from friends and family. Max, for example, is so absorbed in his need for the show to reach the next level that he’s neglecting Drew, a constant in his life who can clearly do better.

The dynamic between Max and Drew is the archetypal Bart / Milhouse situation. Given its familiarity, LeVeck barely has to do any set-up and so dispatches with the unnecessary exposition. This means that we can get straight down to business, LeVeck using the first thirty minutes or so to set the scene. We find out rather swiftly that the show is a series of hoaxes staged on a set, rigged with practical effects, and our possessed have information fed to them from Drew via an earpiece. We also discover that the show has peaked – their next show needs to be something truly special – and Drew and Max are drifting apart. Once this, and the prep for the latest episode is out of the way, the film unfolds in almost real-time. Drew calls action at around the one-hour remaining mark, the total streaming length of an installment of ‘The Cleansing Hour’, and so the viewer, much like those glimpsed in the film, gets drawn in ever closer.

Ryan Guzman is great in the role of Max, oozing with unearned entitlement and cockiness from the get-go. He converts Max into being exactly the type of douche-bag you’d expect someone this egotistical to be. Helped by LeVeck’s script, which includes Max’s cheese on toast catchphrase, ‘May God bless you and the Devil miss you.’ We know all we need to within the first few minutes. It’s great then when events turn and slowly Max is stripped layer by layer, as our demon unwittingly changes Max into a much better human being. Kyle Gallner is equally solid as the put upon Drew. Gallner has long been a ‘that guy’ staple of the horror genre, and it’s nice to see him get an extended amount of screen time. The two men, and their friendship, form the heart of the film so it’s very important that the two leads capture that close dynamically.

The best performance in The Cleansing Hour though belongs to Alix Angelis who plays the possessed Lane, the girlfriend of Drew. Though on paper Angelis’ role might look fairly easy with her character being confined to a single chair for the bulk of screen time, and yet it’s anything but. Being stuck in said chair makes the part so much more challenging, she can’t demonstrate her crazy demonic side in the usual ways. Overall, she does a commendable job of switching between the innocent and strong Lane, and the evil and conniving entity within.

Towards the end, The Cleansing Hour runs out of steam a little, falling into some of the usual genre pitfalls. Right at the end there’s commentary about the media’s power to influence an audience, especially when it comes to violence, tagged on at the end. As interesting as it is though, being presented in the closing moments, it feels a tad too little too late. Overall though The Cleansing Hour is a frighteningly fun modern spin on the stuffy exorcism story.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

The Cleansing Hour is available on Shudder now.

This review was first published on THN.