In a genre that’s wound itself around everything from killer clowns to drippy-eyed undertakers, it seems only apt that now we find ourselves with a homicidal house cleaner.
Jon Knautz’s lean, mean, Febreze-inspired thriller is a perfect study in delivering exactly what it says on the tin, for both better and worse. What starts as a surprisingly suspenseful stalker movie, with a pair of well-cast and well-written female characters at the helm, very quickly launches itself straight into the genre bargain-bin, with a third-act as generic (and disappointing) as you’d expect from such a no-frills title.
Co-written by and starring Alexis Kendra as a kind, love-addicted beautician, The Cleaning Lady builds itself up around some incredibly sturdy foundations. Kendra’s Alice befriends badly-scarred and socially-removed maintenance worker Shelly (a terrific Rachel Alig), taking her under her wing with everything from extra cleaning work, to lessons in beautification. In exchange, Shelly helps her new friend with her addiction, teasing her away from the emotionally-abusive, married man she’s been locked into a troubling affair with.
This opening act surrounds a sweet and rarely-generic female friendship, and even as Knautz starts to lean on the gas a little, and brings out Shelly’s darker, more unbalanced side, there’s still a sense of fondness. From the posters and even the film’s own uber-dark prologue, you’d expect a straight-up slasher, and even though it does eventually sidle on down that path, in its early acts, The Cleaning Lady is at the very least, smart enough to do so slowly, and with a decent amount of character development.
Alice’s addictions are central to her decisions and tuck into the film’s plotting cleverly, while some deeply troubling flashbacks into Shelly’s past help to build a lot of weight into the middle third. Alig plays out that calm emptiness of an effective horror psycho tremendously, and the gradually ramping danger of her fascination with Alice results in easily one of the creepiest horror moments of the year. But almost with just the flick of a switch, all of Knautz and the actors’ hard-work just levels-off into nearly nothing come the final act.
That glorious slow-build seems to stop half-way, like someone, somewhere along the line got bored, and the film takes a juddering left turn into your standard run-of-the-mill torture porn, racing towards a finale that feels neither necessary, nor satisfying. The careful character-work and Hitchcockian vibes get thrown away, and in an effort to be nothing short of nasty, The Cleaning Lady gives up on being both three-dimensional and interesting, and instead – starts to take out the trash.
If you’re a little surprised by just how smartly written and carefully built a horror film with a title as bland and disposable as The Cleaning Lady is, try to curb your excitement early on – by the final third, it morphs into exactly what you’d expect.
The Cleaning Lady was screened as part of Arrow Video FrightFest 2018.