I’m curious how they’re going to market The Master Cleanse. I went into the film knowing very little about it, and many of my favorite parts involve its little surprises. I hope those surprises aren’t spoiled in the trailer. There’s an older A-list actress in a supporting role, and two veteran character actors who I always like seeing on screen. One of them--the only one I feel okay spoiling in this review--is the underrated Kevin J. O’Connor. His most high-profile roles were in Lord of Illusions and The Mummy, though he’s recently popped up in some of the newer Paul Thomas Anderson films. He’s an actor of pale, comforting frailty; picture Vincent Schiavelli by way of Don Knotts.
I’m also curious about the marketing because The Master Cleanse seems to occupy its own quirky little world that’s hard to describe without giving it away. It’s a comedy at heart with a tinge of science fiction and just a taste of horror. The horror and sci-fi seem like minor concerns, though. This is a niche sort of comedy creature feature, which recalls a horror subgenre that hasn’t been en vogue for a long while.
[This review is part of Flixist’s coverage of the first ever Brooklyn Horror Film Festival, which runs from October 14th to October 16th. For tickets and more information about the inaugural Brooklyn Horror Film Festival, click here.]
The Master Cleanse
Director: Bobby Miller
Release Date: TBD
During the 1980s there was a glut of creature movies, spurred mostly by the popularity of Gremlins. After that came movies like Ghoulies and Critters and Hobgoblins. The Master Cleanse is like a cousin to these films, a few times removed. In some ways this link to the creature features of the not-so-distant past is a detriment to the film, but we’ll come back to that point later.
Writer/director Bobby Miller embeds the creature feature elements within a movie about self-help and fad diets as a solution for existential problems. Paul (Johnny Galecki) is a classic schlub who’s heartbroken and aimless and in search of direction. He decides to check out a mystery retreat in the woods to deal with his woes. He’s attracted to a fellow retreatee, an actress named Maggie (Anna Friel). The two meet in an chintzy orientation meeting that reeks of bad multi-level marketing scams. In the woods, the participants agree to an all-liquid diet of specially formulated sludge that will help rid them of their problems.
Miller and his cast relish the awkward humor of these moments, which also tap into an underlying first-world sadness. Who else but the lost and desperate would even try these sorts of things? How many bad weeks are we from being where these people are? It’s such a clever set up to watch unfold, even with such a small cast. A lot of the credit goes to how invested the ensemble is in their characters and the premise. Galecki channels a mix of sympathy and patheticness perfect for his downtrodden everyschlub.
As the creatures make their way into the narrative, I was charmed by the movie’s use of practical effects. There’s something pretty wondrous about the conceit Miller presents. The creatures and the characters are linked in an unexpected way, which adds some life to the puppets and the people we’re watching.
There’s so much to work with and so much to like about The Master Cleanse, but it wraps up way too soon. That may be the narrative expectations I have from those creature features I mentioned before. As The Master Cleanse quickly winds down, it feels like it would have been the beginning of third act in another film--a point where the world expands. I wonder if the budget was an issue, or the desire to keep the film at a very brief 80 minutes, or maybe this was a conscious choice to keep the story very small. I could have spent another 15 to 20 minutes in the world of the film no problem; it almost feels like the emotional payoff would have been bigger with a little more time. There’s so much potential, such a fine tone, so many other things I would have liked to see, and characters I would have liked to spend more time with.
The Master Cleanse is a movie where vomiting and diarrhea are fetid versions of Chekhov’s gun. I mean this as a high compliment--what other movie does this? So many questions about excretions.
While The Master Cleanse falls short at the end--a good example of a logical conclusion that isn’t necessarily a satisfying one--there’s enough in there to enjoy. It’s almost like I went on the retreat and did the cleanse diet myself. I drank it all in and it’s all out of my system. Gosh am I hungry.