The Master Cleanse is an odd little number to find at a horror film festival, as it isn’t really horror in the ways we normally define such. It has a set up like a horror movie, and it is definitely a creature feature, but what at first feels like it might become a brutal jab at Scientology and similar self-help systems goes in another direction entirely.
We first meet Johnny Galecki‘s Paul at a diner, where he is delivering an unsolicited review of one of their hot dogs to a fellow patron. (Take it from a fast food review guy–that’s not the way to do it!) He’s aimless, girlfriendless, and people treat him like crap, which is somewhat appropriate given how awkwardly boundary-free he can behave. It’s not that he’s desperate to make a change, but if one comes along that’s free of charge, and a pretty, equally neurotic woman also seems into it, well, that’s an opportunity. And so he embarks upon the Master Cleanse, a process that takes place in a group of remote cabins in the woods, and apparently only chooses four people, all expenses paid.
Yes, logistically it makes no sense, but as will become clearer and clearer, this is an allegorical world with multiple nods to Franz Kafka, and your real-life analysis of what might or might not cause a business to succeed has no place here. Paul’s cleanse-mates are Maggie (Anna Friel), the aforementioned object of his affections who has lied about her traumas in order to get weight loss tips; and Eric (Kyle Gallner) and Laurie (Diana Bang), a couple who is dysfunctionally complete in that she’s passive and he’s aggressive. There’s also a long-term holdover named Fredericks (Kevin J. O’Connor), who is older, creepier, and has mysterious scars. Presiding over the process is Lily (Anjelica Huston), a proxy for the real guru, Ken Roberts (Oliver Platt), whose presence is promised, Kamp Krusty style, on the last day.
Step one of the cleanse is to drink a whole bunch of nasty paint-water looking stuff, customized for each participant. Step 2 involves lots of evacuating from both ends, most of which mercifully takes place offscreen. Step 3 is the most important one: from your puke, a cute demon-critter is born, and it’s up to you to deal with it how you see fit. If the metaphor for dealing with your demons isn’t obvious enough, it gets belabored when other people’s demons interact with your own.
The problem The Master Cleanse faces is that this premise was handled better and funnier in 2013’s Bad Milo, in which a homicidal demon resembling an evil version of Dinosaurs‘ Baby Sinclair kept popping in and out of Ken Marino’s butt. The Master Cleanse tries to play things straight and appears to be hoping the weirdness will be inherently funny, but it never quite gets there. Maybe the issue is that Paul doesn’t seem to care that much about anything, so it’s hard to care a lot about him. It’s tempting to say that the personal demons allegory could have been cooked up by a high-schooler (or anybody high, come to think of it), except that the movie Therapy, also in Screamfest, is directed by a kid who’s high-school age, and it has a lot more going on.
It’s fun to see Anjelica Huston in a movie like this spouting New Agey nonsense, and the puppetry or CG (I honestly can’t tell which, and that’s a compliment) on the creatures is the right balance of weird and cute. Still, this all feels like a premise that needed to be pushed further. When events briefly take a dark turn at the end, we’re left with more questions that should have been better answered in the movie proper.
2 out of 5 burritos for The Master Cleanse. If you’re in the Los Angeles area, it plays Screamfest Saturday night, Oct. 22nd, at 8 p.m. at the Chinese Theater 6.
Image: Alcide Bava Pictures
Luke Y. Thompson plays with his demons like action figures. For more of his issues, follow the Nerdist weekend editor on Twitter.