The Cleaning Lady is a surprisingly mature horror thriller that relies more on creepy suspense than graphic violence or gruesome gore. Director Jon Knautz, working from a screenplay he co-wrote with leading lady Alexis Kendra, has the confidence – and the skill – to build suspense with slow burn first and second acts before launching into a full-throttle, no-holds-barred finale.
Okay, the movie does open with a disturbing sequence of rats in a blender, which at least serves to let the audience know that this is a horror movie, after all, and encourages them to be patient with the leisurely build-up. Even though it almost seems to have come from another movie.
Alexis Kendra plays main character Alice with a deceptively bland face. She’s a single professional woman with ingenue written all over her, but there’s a catch. Alexis is a sex addict having an affair with a married man, yet nothing about her invites us to think of her as a homewrecker. It’s tempting to immediately compare Alice to Janet Leigh’s Marion Crane in Hitchcock’s Psycho, but then Marion Crane was only having a relationship with a divorced man who couldn’t afford to get remarried because of punitive alimony payments. But before Marion is put on too high a pedestal, she was willing to commit embezzlement to get the money to marry her boyfriend. Alice is just looking for love in all the wrong places, and goes to a support group for “love addicts.” She’s trying not to take calls from her married lover (Stelio Savante), who continually promises to take her away on an extended Italian vacation. She’s actually pretty easy to sympathize with.
Alice lives in a pleasant California apartment building, where is she is startled by the building’s maintenance person, Shelly (Rachel Alig), who bears severe facial scars. Shelly is so quiet-spoken you’re tempted to yell at her to speak up. Alice offers Shelly an under-the-table part-time job as her cleaning lady, partly out of pity, partly out of her loneliness.
Something about this feels wrong from the start. Is it just Shelly’s facial disfigurement that prompts our distrust? The hardcore Hitchcockian would note that employing Shelly off the books is of course not strictly legal, and that’s exactly the sort of moral lapse, however well-intentioned, that generally seems to invite retribution in Hitchcock’s somewhat twisted view of Catholic morality. That Alice’s continuing to see a married man might be considered an even greater sin should go without saying. But whether we’re dealing with Hitchcock’s view of the universe or not (and I think we are), we are certainly dealing with Shelly’s, and she has her own distinct view of appropriate conduct which she feels free to share with her new employer – whether the conduct in question is smoking cigarettes or sleeping with a married man.
Shelly has some dark secrets of her own, as we’re shown in a series of nerve-wracking flashbacks that leave no doubt that Shelly is herself a victim. And although things do go from creepy to worse, the story actually seldom proceeds predictably. Knautz and Kendra are clever writers, and they have a great appreciation of both playing to genre conventions and standing them on their heads. That’s no mean trick, and to its credit, The Cleaning Lady is actually full of surprises – many of them fairly twisted.
Knautz’s direction is slick and assured. The movie is stylishly shot and crisply edited. And although he doesn’t lean on graphic violence as a cane to compensate for no plot, he doesn’t hold back either. The performances are good, especially from JoAnne McGrath, whose performance as Shelly’s mother (a character who might be another sly nod to Psycho) could have some viewers going into analysis.
Definitely operating on a higher plane than torture porn schlockfests or the more sanitized PG-13 spook shows that have been popular lately, The Cleaning Lady is creepy, provocative and even twisted horror movie that wrings the last penny out of its modest budget and gets its scares without just throwing pasty-faced schmoos at the camera. You won’t see the end coming, and it may leave you shaken. The Cleaning Lady is a low-budget shocker that’s likely to stay with you for awhile, and one thing’s for damn sure. You will no longer be thinking how nice it would be have someone come in and do the cleaning.
The Cleaning Lady will be available On Demand, Digital HD and DVD on June 4, 2019.