Every great horror story has a moral. Whether it’s a simple theme like “don’t go in the woods,” or a slasher-style message of “don’t have unprotected sex in the back of your dad’s Buick,” there’s always some point to a scary story. Naturally, The Cleaning Lady offers viewers its own moral, this time being “don’t trust those ugly poor people.”
The Cleaning Lady
Director: Jon Knautz
Release Date: June 4, 2019 (VOD, DVD)
Imagine watching The Hunchback of Notre Dame and thinking, “Yeah, but what if Quasimodo was exactly the monster everyone thought he was?” That’s The Cleaning Lady in a nutshell. It gives us Shelly (Rachel Alig), a maintenance worker for an upper-class apartment building. Face masked with horrible burns, she keeps her hair long and ducks her head, mumbling her way through conversations with as little eye contact as possible. Enter Alice (Alexis Kendra), a woman who does skin treatments for a living and is in love with a married man. She pays Shelly a hundred dollars a day to keep her apartment clean. While trying to avoid her married lover, Alice asks Shelly to stay for dinner and to watch TV. To say a friendship forms between the two would be a gross overstatement. Shelly mutters about her scars. They share some secrets. Perhaps Shelly becomes a bit attracted to Alice. That’s about it before the horror stuff starts.
Rachel Alig plays Shelly with nuanced fragility. She lives in squalor. She’s disfigured. She seems afraid of everything. She’s the most relatable character of the film, and yet there’s never a moment you think she’ll be anything other than the monster she’s meant to be. She’s grinding up rats in a blender in the first shot of the film and feeding them to someone chained inside a shipping container within fifteen minutes. She lacks any sinister air, though, which creates a disconnect between how she’s played and how the script wants her to be. This isn’t to say she’s played badly. Alig is excellent. It’s the script that fails us.
Never at any point is The Cleaning Lady going to subvert your expectations. Right down to who it is locked up in that shipping container, you’ll never find yourself shocked or surprised by a turn of events. There’s a frustrating plethora of opportunities for twists, too. With the adulterous husband and his suspecting wife, there’s no reason Shelly has to be the monster here, or at least not the only one. There’s a possibility that Shelly could have disfigured her own face, but that’s set aside for a face burning that comes off more goofy than scary. There’s even a melodramatic moment in which the wife finds Alice bound in Shelly’s house, and she’s given a choice between rescuing her and leaving her behind. The wife makes the boring choice.
The most haunting shots are almost all of Shelly’s disfigured face either as it is or under some makeup or a plastic mask and the only scares are a handful of jumps that are punctuated with a clatter of music and sound effects which seem so desperate to wrangle even a drop of adrenaline out of us.
On top of that, The Cleaning Lady is ridiculously on-the-nose when it comes to how scary it thinks poor people are. There’s a moment where Shelly admits to riding the bus that suggests I’m supposed to clasp my hand over my mouth in shock. The bus? My word! The wife, while tailing her husband, runs out of gas and is left on the side of the road. Then, around the corner comes this pickup truck, and its driver is a bearded man preaching Jesus and leaning in all close-like to mention how purdy she is. He gets her gas and leaves her be without defiling or attacking her, as if to suggest that, sure, all poor people are very scary and weird, but not every single one of them commits atrocities. Whew!
Even Shelly’s backstory, for all the sympathy it’s meant to garner, has a somewhat comical lack of authenticity when compared to the trials and tribulations of the upper-class city dwellers. Shelly’s mom decides to turn her daughter out as a prostitute, because it beats working at “that stinking fertilizer factory.” That’s right. Her choices are either to get her daughter turning tricks or go back to the shit factory. Honestly, fertilizer factory sounds like a decent job, and we certainly don’t see enough to explain why she would prefer molding her child into a sex slave over it. Maybe it’s just because she’s that crazy and evil, but again we don’t see that in how Shelly’s mom is played. It’s like the cast wants to act out a grounded tragedy, and all the film wants is a jumpy little chiller. The two clashing tones create something that’s neither dramatic nor horrifying. It’s all just a bit eye-rolling and smirk-inducing.
I will admit, though, my perspective comes from that of a poor person who only knows other poor people. Maybe if you do have money and look at people waiting at a bus stop like strange creatures only intent to do you harm, you might find a good jolt or two here. I know that horror isn’t the best place to look for life-affirming characters who embody all the best traits of their classes and groups. Since the dawn of film, horror has had some pretty terrible takes on disability, mental illness, and sexuality and the genre hasn’t really gotten better. For as much as I love Don’t Breathe, that movie morphs an old man into a superhuman killing machine all because he happens to be blind. The difference here is that its thematic faults can be set aside and forgotten, because Don’t Breathe is a tense and unrelenting experience. It also helps that its monster isn’t relatable or fragile. You want to hate him. Shelly is played for pity. She’s someone you care for and attach to. You want more for her. That’s what makes her predictable turn into generic horror psycho all the more disappointing.
The Cleaning Lady, for its collection of spooky images and its surprisingly strong performances, follows the most banal and predictable line available and gives us an underdeveloped villain who’s portrayed as a misunderstood monster but receives little more care than a teen-scream slasher.