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Arrow Video FrightFest 2018 Review - THE CLEANING LADY

THE CLEANING LADY movie review
A woman's friendship with her cleaner takes a dangerous turn.


Review by Benjamin Poole

Directed by: Jon Knautz

Starring: Alexis Kendra, Stelio Savante, Rachel Alig, Elizabeth Sandy

THE CLEANING LADY movie poster

Oh. Oh my! The Cleaning Lady, Jon Knautz (director) and Alexis Kendra’s (writer/star) near perfect horror, opens with a true provocation. We see a lovely little rat caught in a trap, squeaking its tiny heart out as it is picked up by hands unknown, before being unceremoniously dumped into a greasy food processor, where a sudden WHIZZZZZZ! reduces the unfortunate rodent to vibrant sludge. The pureed gore is then decanted into a glass to be placed in a grim looking fridge for presumable consumption later. Yikes, and then some! You don’t have to be an animal lover to be traumatised by such an unforgiving opening: as a statement of genre intent, this is shocking, upsetting and stomach churning; horror promises, in fact, which The Cleaning Lady deftly expounds upon throughout its running time.

THE CLEANING LADY movie review

This shock opening is vital to the film’s nifty manipulation of genre codes. Following the torture-porn tones of The Cleaning Lady’s first few minutes, the lighting and milieu opens up to a bright, cheery mise-en-scene more typical of rom-coms. And, accordingly, the plot also switches from animal barbarity to the tamer concerns of extra-marital dalliances: beautician Alice (Kendra) is having an affair with lug Michael (Stelio Savante), the sort of player who makes promises taken straight from Mills and Boon (that he’ll take her to Italy, that he’ll leave his wife - heard it all before, eh girls?) but which we know will never come to fruition. Poor Alice. And as our lead takes off to a local neighbourhood support-come-gossip group, with its various picaresque characters, there’s enough here alone to sustain a lightweight Netflix series about a modern woman negotiating contemporary pitfalls in a gently comedic manner, with just her trusty gaggle of kooky friends and nice wardrobe to help her. You know the sort of thing; Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, OITNB, Insatiable; day-glo shows about beautiful American women in modern crises. So faithful is this set up, so true even to the format’s colour palette (The Cleaning Lady is deliberately composed of blues and yellows, the colour of sunshine), that if we’d missed the outrageous genre anchorage of the opening, we’d probably just assume we were binging another one of these lively, pleasant comedies and not one of the most unsettling horrors of the year (it helps also that the amazing Kendra looks a lot like Kristen Bell, she of various rom-coms and Netflix’s The Good Place).

The vivid appearance of titular cleaning lady Shelly (Rachel Alig) then is almost that of a genre interloper: as if horror is slowly infecting this province of pleasantries. A self-effacing charwoman, hidden in the shadows of her baseball cap, ill-fitting clothes and lank hair, she announces her presence in Alice’s narrative by holding up some hair she’s pulled from a plughole while cleaning the former’s apartment, as if she’s that kid from The Ring. And as we look closer, we see that the socially awkward Shelly’s features have been almost entirely obliterated into waxen scars, with only the darkened hollows of her eyes untouched. Perhaps motivated by kindness, or maybe seeking distraction from her upsy-daisy love life, eventually Alice pities Shelly and takes her under her wing.

THE CLEANING LADY movie review

Bad idea. As Alice flops out in front of movies with, and performs would-be make-overs on, the wretched Shelly, and the cleaning lady likewise further entrenches herself into the beautician’s life, we find out, in flashbacks and transitions, that Shelly’s scars run far deeper than Alice could ever imagine. Shelly’s peculiarity is initially demonstrated as she spies upon Alice in the bath, and while she is in bed (the most subversively frightening pop lyric of all time: ‘I watch you when you are sleeping/ You belong with me’ *shudder*), and is further explicated when we see her grim homelife, and whatever she has hidden in a darkened lock up…

Through the cruel irony of its protagonist’s job as a cosmetologist and the disfigurement of her counterpart, The Cleaning Lady explores notions of beauty, an eternal theme of the genre. Alice, in her pastel world of warm baths and make up brushes (the Forget-Me-Not colour scheme is ultimately reflective of her blonde, blue eyed charms) is well meaning but fatally arrogant in the way that she underestimates her new pal for not fulfilling an accepted standard of femininity (perusing the imdb of both excellent actresses turns up prior bit roles which are based solely upon how each look: ‘Hot Nurse’, ‘Pretty Girl’, Hottie’: so, so perfect). And while Alice, whose major problem prior to Shelly is giving up smoking, believes she is Shelly’s redeemer, it turns out that she is eventually as far from saviour as is possible…

THE CLEANING LADY movie review

Fair warning: as the faux-romcom stylings are peeled away, the film gradually, masterfully, becomes incredibly upsetting, but in a manner that is justifiably dramatic and makes perfect sense of the ensuing horror. And a horror film it most certainly is, one that is beautifully acted, thoughtfully written by Kendra and executed with careful direction by Knautz. One of the genre pleasures of the year, The Cleaning Lady is original, modern and deeply disturbing.




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