This review may contain spoilers
Time to go off script – Lane/Aamon
You fuck with the bull you’ll eventually get the horns”
Here we go again, riding the exorcism bullet, or the cross, or shouldering through words from the ‘The Devil’s Database’, a software built with complete information and rites taken straight from the holy books used by actual exorcists at the Vatican, during real exorcisms. However, this one is a nasty little fucker, if I may. Director Damien LeVeck (ASYLUM: Twisted Horror and Fantasy Tales, 2020) expands on his own nineteen minutes short, released in 2016 and written by LeVeck and Aaron Horwitz (Roommate Wanted [Video], 2015).
Yes, there are many films where the race against the clock is key to the plot (The Ring, The Saw Franchise, The Manchurian Candidate, The Countdown), however, not like this. No ma’am. Never has this pilgrim come across such a furtive narrative, tricking us with how the story unfolds into full-blown hell, from a mid-sized, dark, mahogany room designed to be an ‘exorcism room‘, like a panic room, with computers and the Internet and the ‘live stream‘, a cluster of wires that look like a snakepit, to pixelated feed and followers, one of whom is the president’s (of the US) son.
What starts off as your below-average (with intent) exorcism film, where we are shown a priest delivering a South Asian man of whatever has possessed him, enters the film within a film, territory. The transition is pretty clever and smooth. The priest, Max (Ryan Guzman opening as a character where he brings emotion in his portrayal of not only someone who was hurt by religion and turned a profit from it, someone who desperately wants to do good in spite of his faults. Sometimes you wanna hate the guy and yet at others you actually feel for him and empathize with him after he’s been through some pretty vicious games), and his producer Drew (Kyle Gallner) – who never crosses the line, unless he’s forced to, even then he resists, you’ll see – are responsible for making fake exorcism videos with props, fake blood, Mary’s painting on the wall, a small window made of stained glass, Max in full priest attire, reciting the demonic rites aloud as his ear-piece is fed information through holy text being read by Drew (“MAX, IT’s NOT GONNA WORK. You can’t just read random Bible verses, specific rites for each demon“, shouts Drew to Max who is frantically reading from the Bible) and speaking into a microphone, who sits on the other half of the room with full LAN setup and paraphernalia to broadcast/stream carefully scripted and orchestrated exorcism videos, live, to entice viewers to like and follow their videos and purchase goods. There are quick edits where the camera is double-clutching between the number of ‘Active Visitors’, just like how it was in Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum ‘곤지암’ 2018 (a 2018 South Korean found footage horror film directed by Jung Bum-shik). Max also has a secret in the shape of Schoolmarm (Joanna David), and that little secret is one ugly motherfucker, that comes lurching at you and then a young (flashback) Max does something unwittingly ‘John Wick’, to put matters straight.
“You have forty-nine minutes to lift the veil.”
The videos are complete with advertisements of merchandise with the program’s branding on it, with Father Max’s photo on t-shirts, mugs, and so on. This is also a pretty skillful transit and outfit, which defrays in full when a woman, Drew’s girlfriend and the film’s true star (Alix Angelis as Sabrina Lane), in a physically demanding role, is shown to be possessed for real and has certain harsh conditions set forth for the duo (Max and Drew), conditions that must be fulfilled before the show ends in sixty minutes, or she will devour Lane’s soul and take it to hell with him. I say him since the demon who has possessed Lane (not Lois), is Aamon, a Marquis of Hell who governs forty infernal legions. He’s the seventh spirit of the Lesser Key of Solomon (the Goetia). I thought you should know, just in case – you never know, you know?
Lane/Aamon: “Looks like the show’s got some heat Maxie” (as the screen shows the number rise to three million-plus)
Angelis’s ability to contort her face and body while shackled to a chair is as deeply chilling as it is captivating. She is covered in blood and commanding the room; Angelis’ ability to hold the scene while she simply stares at the camera, at us is simply astonishing. Plus, the sound designer’s mixing of Tara Karsian‘s voice with Angelis’ own is so seamless I was lead to believe that Angelis was making it on her own that is until I visited IMDb for some back info on this flick.
Max runs in a panic to one of the cameras and starts giving out the address and it comes crashing onto the floor, Drew dials 911 but his phone keeps showing the message, “No Signal”. I wonder why Drew didn’t try and tell the address to the numerous other screens present? Never mind, I shall not let that one little gripe come in the way.
Lane/Aamon: “Tonight Father, you’ll have a chance to save your own soul, if you don’t, I’ll kill sweet little Sabrina here, in a way that will make ex-Tommy’s death look like euthanasia.
Tommy’s (Daniel Hoffmann-Gill) death was something that made me cringe and then do a double-take when the fire extinguisher does what it does).
Lane/Aamon: Drew, end the feed at any point, I kill the girl. Max, you step outside (the circle) at any point and I kill the girl. Anyone tries to run, I’ll kill you (looking with pinpoint pupils at Riley (Emma Holzer – a typical case of extreme myosis when someone is possesed in a film.
Those scenes, up there, are not without dark humor as the demon mocks the posers. With subtle but meaningful pacing and pretty convincing performances by those left alive after Aamon makes an entry and sends a statue of Jesus, standing on a shelf, flying and into someone’s head, after which, fingers are bitten off, an entire parchment is pulled out from Sabrina’s throat, an ancient coin is spat towards Drew, with his name on it and the picture of what looked like a Byzantine Emperor. Shit has begun to hit the fan and the fan is not showing any signs of slowing down, as Sabrina/Aamon keeps getting outlandish, ridiculous, and also pretty contrarily funny in his demands, Demands that pull in server-breaking audience size. entertaining is the use of cuts to audiences watching in their daily lives and the inclusion of an onscreen chat which, as LeVeck pointed out during his post-film Fantastic Fest Q&A, was all generated by his friends who watched the film.
Screen-writers, Damien LeVeck and Aaron Horwitz, it seems, keep getting better with each new frame, with every new show that the possessed puts on, with her hands strapped to a chair, engraved with holy symbols. They are smarter than what the opening had led us to believe. And it is a pretty explosive and a highly charged opening for that matter, like the rest of the high-octane film, where the kills are slow (except that Jesus statue projectile). Take Chris for instance, actor Chris Lew Kum Hoi is shown getting sick as the first exorcism ends and he takes refuge in the LAN room, filled with servers and cables and blinking Ethernet ports and other networking equipment.
By balancing reactions that run the gamut (the genuinely concerned and the inevitable trolls), this layer of social interaction does a lot to give the film dimension beyond your typical possession film.
The death of Chris is one of the most gruesome and horrifying and brutal in recent horror history, it is plain old fierce, coarse. It is so wrong for something like this to happen, and ironic; all along we can hear the snickering of Aamon in the back.
The Cleansing Hour is a refreshing horror outing, despite the on-screen decay, which is an imperative for the genre. That and those eyes, and body make-up to show swollen cheekbones, the dark blemishes around the eyes, warts, boils, and what have you.
This is one finely crafted possession film, where the narrative is absolutely unreliable, it is completely unexpected for certain events to happen at a time when they are not supposed to happen. I don’t know if that makes sense, but it made plenty of scary sense while this mountain-man was glued to the screen. Even if not scary in the truest meaning of the word, Hour is a sure shot detour from your run-of-the-mill horror pictures being churned out these days, especially horror films with exorcisms and possession. LeVeck & Horwitz have made a couple of wise choices, that filmmakers missed the opportunity in, say, the Blair Witch remake, or The Rite, 2011, with Anthony Hopkins, or more recently, The Possession of Hannah Grace (Cadaver), 2018; Grace, 2014; also perhaps the Conjuring Franchise or The Nun; Deliver Us from Evil, 2014 and The Devil’s Candy, 2015, a more solid film from the lot.
A festival darling, with the initial screenings held at the Strasbourg European Fantastic Film Festival to a packed theater, similarly the film was a sleeper hit at the Fantastic Fest and FrightFest, making its way smoothly towards the cult classic tag. The money has been used efficiently and most effectively and not a penny looks like was wasted while producing this well-made film with a lean narrative and strong, tongue-in-cheek performances, especially by Alix Angelis as the possessed Sabrina Lane, who seems to be having a jolly good time here. The rest of the cast is also at par with the performance of our damsel in supernatural distress; however, fortunately for her, Angelis gets to perform for a role that comes maybe once in a lifetime, and she nails it, straight into the palm of another. I could be imagining, with the amount of nubain being eaten these days.
The Cleansing Hour stands head and shoulders above American-made films that have come out in the possession genre in recent years. It’s imaginative, comedic, and uses disturbing details to give life to the astonishing and unsettling practical effects that throw-back to body horror classics, for instance, Scanners, 1981 by David Cronenberg.
This beast is an adrenaline shot to the heart, it is unrelenting and refuses to give up even after the credits start rolling and this prescription pariah had both his hand to the head in utter dismay and helplessness of the situation and the scale at which, the film is hinting.
In the end, Hour hits hard and unexpectedly that it makes you push back in your seat, it is highly engaging and the superb creature designs and practical effects are simply brilliant, while the film makes you laugh with its dark humor that puts a mirror up to how we all behave online. This is a snarky takedown of the digital age that doesn’t really hit its stride until the third act.
Add to that the contemporary, the superlative, dark as Lord Vader‘s soul, experimental and gorgeous cinematography by Jean-Philippe Bernier and it augments the entire deal, plus the great practical effects work by Tom Woodruff Jr.’s Amalgamated Dynamics special makeup effects studio takes the film to a place where rarely any filmmaker goes; but once there, there is no turning back, eye-popping practical effects or not, twist within a twist or not, being compared to the proverbial exorcism film ever made, The Exorcist, 1973 by William Freidkin (Cruising, 1980) or not, being called a film with an astute concept that offers up some fun and laughs, but it’s bogged down by cheesy clichés and familiar horror trappings (when compared to the daddy of them all, nothing would look good and always smell of cheese, therefore, I let the comparisons be unless it’s Robert Eggers, Wes Craven, Sam Raimi, Tobe Hooper David Lynch, Federico Álvarez, Ari Aster, and the directors of New French Extremist Wave, Pascal Laugier and Lars von Trier, Michael Haneke, Lukas Moodysson, and Fatih Akın among a whole lot of other dedicated horror directors who more than just manage to scare and get Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer) for days and brand themselves upon the brain.
This one cannot be missed.
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