The Cleaning Lady, 2018.
Directed by Jon Knautz.
Starring Alexis Kendra, Stelio Savante, Rachel Alig, Elizabeth Sandy, Mykayla Sohn, JoAnne McGrath, and Keri Marrone.
As a means to distract herself from an affair, a love-addicted woman befriends a cleaning lady, badly scarred by burns. She soon learns these scars run much deeper than the surface.
In many ways director/co-writer Jon Knautz’s The Cleaning Lady feels like a return to domestic psycho-thrillers like The Stepford Wives and Repulsion. Even the décor and fashion suggests 1960s and 70s, though the film is clearly set in the present day. But as the plot ramps up towards a splatter-filled finish, it leaves the suburbs for a third act that echoes the artful gore of Clive Barker and the Turkish horror gem Baskin.
Alexis Kendra (who also co-wrote the screenplay) stars as Alice, a woman who applies facials in her professional life and carries on an affair with a well-off married man in her private one. While she attends support groups and repeatedly tries to disentangle herself from the relationship, Alice hires Shelly (played with an understated touch by Rachel Alig) as a cleaning lady. Shelly’s face is severely disfigured by burn scars. Initially, the relationship between the two grows out of Alice’s pity for Shelly, as well as her own loneliness.
The eventual reveal as to Shelly’s scars and her true intentions kick the movie into motion after a first act that unspools a little too slowly. Rats get blended into red sludge. Acid meets skin. And there is a particularly cringe-inducing moment of tension involving scissors and a tongue, made all the more effective by the fact that the beat is done entirely in-camera. While some of the gore looks questionable, the moments of horror are sharp enough to satisfy. The central mystery revolves around Shelly. How was she scarred? What does she want? The first question is answered in a suitably queasy and unsettling way. The second one remains murky.
The last stretch of the film brings all the threads together economically. From here on out it follows the beats of a slasher pic, albeit with a unique killer. A car runs out of gas at an inopportune time, a cell phone conveniently loses service and the killer pops up with clockwork timing – though there is a marked lack of jump scares, which will relieve some and frustrate others. I was in the relieved camp.
Knautz and cinematographer Joshua Allen present scenes in long, smooth shots that track characters as they move around rooms and down hallways. Rather than chopping up these sequences Knautz lets them play out. The lingering style helps build a sense of creeping unease at odds with Alice’s made up appearance and the colorful upper middle-class surroundings.
Overall, the film feels like an oddity, a soap opera that slowly tilts into disturbing territory as it reels you in. It works. If you are looking for a retro, stylish chiller that beguiles and disturbs in equal measure The Cleaning Lady is worth a watch.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★