My notes on The Cleaning Lady-out digitally in the US June 4.
Jon Knautz isn’t an easy director to get a handle on. He began with relatively conventional fare like Jack Brooks: Monster Slayer, The Shrine and Girlhouse – which essay a range of horror sub-genres – but shifted mood with the ‘crazy dame’ character study Goddess of Love and stays in that territory with this low-key psycho-drama. Knautz began with short films and has unusually stuck with it, making shorts between his features – this is an expanded remake of a 2016 short he co-scripted with leading actress Alexis Kendra – who returns, as does her co-star from the earlier version, but takes a different role.
The film focuses on Alice (Kendra), who is in a self-help group for ‘love addicts’ but unable to break up with her married lover Michael (Stelio Savante). When her sponsor (Kerri Marrone) can’t be with her during a crisis – she’s cut Michael off and isn’t returning his calls, but he’s pestering her and she knows she’ll backslide – she impulsively asks Shelly (Rachel Alig), her building’s custodian and her part-time cleaner, to spend an evening with her. Shelly has facial burns and a plainly tragic backstory – we see her as a pre-scarred girl (Mykayla Sohn) being smothered by her cracked mother (JoAnne McGrath), who dresses her up like a doll partly through craziness and partly as a business opportunity – but also seriously warped sidelines, which begin with liquidising rats and extend to some extreme tough love. Alice genuinely tries to be kind to Shelly, whom she is still exploiting while she obsesses about her own issues … but, this being a FrightFest selection film, all the make-overs and snug chats in the first acts don’t dispel the foreboding, and the finale – which brings on Helen (Elizabeth Sandy, from the short), Michael’s sensibly suspicious wife – escalates to a captivity narrative as Alice realises she was looking in the wrong direction when it comes to tagging the official stalker in her life.
It’s not quite as unusual as Goddess of Love, but does have an interesting range of female characters with genuinely complicated relationships – at one point, Helen finds Alice tied up in an old dark house, terrified of ‘the crazy woman’, and sets about freeing her even as she realises she’s found her husband’s mistress, and now has more reasons to worry about what he’s been up to and what’s become of him. Alig, who sometimes toys with a Les Yeux sans Visage mask, underplays the crazy – and there’s still an issue, nearly a century after Lon Chaney, with making a disfigured character into a movie monster, no matter how much backstory sympathy we might have for her.
Here’s the FrightFest listing.
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