Director: Jon Knautz
Starring: Alexis Kendra, Rachel Alig, Elizabeth Sandy, Stelio Savante, JoAnne McGrath
Opening the first full day of Frightfest 2018 with its world premiere was Jon Knautz’s (The Shrine) latest film The Cleaning Lady; a tale of obsession and toxicity that takes a classic horror convention and twists it into something more deeply thought-provoking and at times brutal.
Well-meaning Alice (Alexis Kendra, who co-wrote the screenplay with Knautz) is trying to change her life, focussing on her work as a beautician and striking up a friendship with the reclusive and scarred cleaning lady Shelly (Rachel Alig) who works in her building as she builds the strength to leave her married lover for the final time. What starts as an awkward and mismatched friendship turns into something darker, Shelly wants to help her newfound friend become perfect, and Alice’s affair has more extreme consequences than could ever have been expected.
As a synopsis the story may well sound simple, however it is anything but. Beneath this tale is one of obsession – each of the characters has an obsession, all of which are destructive to themselves and others. Shelly’s is perhaps the most interesting because of how hers has come about, which is shown to the audience in flashbacks that become increasingly hard to watch as her life and motives are put together, laying out her psychological as well as physical scars for all to see. Her obsession with perfection is not only caused by her past with her mother but also at a fundamental level by a patriarchal society’s view of women as merely attractive baubles for men, which twisted her childhood into an unhappy place where the biggest compliment she was given was that she would grow up pretty and a man would want her (Not the idea most of us would want to espouse to children). That toxic idea of external beauty being the only thing that matters seeped into the parenting of Shelly, causing irreparable damage and transforming her rage into something that can no longer be held back, and ergo leads to the destruction that she now causes to others by knowing no other way.
Interestingly it feels as though the male characters in The Cleaning Lady exist only to reinforce this idea, in both instances they treat women as commodities and focus on their physicality’s and beauty. So in this world it is hard for the audience to argue that Shelly’s belief isn’t true – as far as she has experienced and still sees now that is all that there is. These characters exist to confirm her beliefs, and they make the audience empathetic to her character – brutal as she can be – because there are reasons, there is a method to her madness so to speak. To write a “villain”, so multi-faceted and so empathetic that you can truly feel badly for them and not see them as a monster or something not-human can be hard, but the way her motives and life are slowly dripped into the present day story build to make you see the whole broken person. She could be anyone brought up in the wrong circumstances. Kendra and Knautz have done a superb job here.
The Cleaning Lady is stylishly shot, slick for the most part and then inescapably grimy the darker the story turns. Visually the lighting work was interesting; Alice for the most part appears well-lit whereas Shelly is obscured by shadow, almost representing the darkness that lies within. It has a Giallo-like atmosphere and visual quality to it which suits the mysterious psychological story being told perfectly. Moving on from that the SFX/make-up work is fantastically done, realistic and painful-looking without being overwhelming – it’s troubling to the eye but human at its core, where it would have been all too easy to take too far and make her look truly monstrous and they have been careful here to have the human vulnerability show through instead.
As it progresses, The Cleaning Lady becomes more violent and brutal, but never in a gratuitous fashion. Much is left to the audiences’ imagination (which let’s be honest is almost always more interesting as it means that no-one sees it the same way) but what is shown is at times visceral and hard to watch – especially within the flashbacks which may be startling to some with their sheer intensity. Those brief moments of brutality both in the past and the present are haunting and heartrending in their depiction, making the audience uncomfortable as well as bringing about a feeling of sadness towards the “villain” that you can’t quite shake.
It may be a hard watch at times, but The Cleaning Lady is a stunning well-written film that twists and turns through not just the psyches of its lead characters but also the audiences as well, turning on its head the idea of the disfigured monster and showing the vulnerability and humanity that though shattered, still lie within. Looking at the power of beauty in those that have it and those that covet it, it makes for a thought-provoking watch about our relationship to physical beauty in the modern age and how it can not only limit but destroy people if we believe that to be the only thing worthwhile. A great psychological thriller should have many layers, haunting messages, and stay with you long after watching and trouble you a little on recollection; The Cleaning Lady manages this deftly and will be a repeat watch for me once released.
Overall rating: 5/5
Stylishly grimy and wickedly clever, a psychological thriller that will haunt you long after watching.