The sign of a really successful movie is, sometimes, that it’s unclear just how to review it. There’s simply too much to process, to continue mulling over, even days after seeing it.
In my case this certainly applies to The Master Cleanse, and I suppose that’s a kind of review right there: if you want to see movies that are original, that keep you thinking about their “good” and “bad” points -- and force you, if just a little bit, to question some of your evaluative criteria -- then this body-horror comedy might really be for you.
The “body-horror” categorization is itself part of the problem, as is the genre classification of “horror” overall. To me, horror presupposes the presence of a monster in some form, the Other that we can fear and yet which we dare not recognize as us. So in this tale of creatures generated by a rather extreme cleansing regimen, who exactly are the monsters? Is it the creatures themselves? That’s the logical choice, and where writer'/director Bobby Miller seems to want to lead us. Even when these little, googly-eyed, digestive-tract slugs are grotesquely cute and kinda helpless, we’re reminded that, well, they do keep on growing.
Or are the monsters the overseers who run the cleansing retreat, such as the character played so deliciously by Anjelica Huston? Surely there must be some sort of sinister agenda behind all their secrecy and dogmatism.
Or should we look to those who blindly place their faith in all of the above for the purpose of self-betterment? That is, the everyday folks who just want to improve their lives: characters played by Johnny Galecki, Anna Friel, and Kyle Gallner, all of whom are pretty wonderful regardless of whether the script calls for light comedy, biting social satire, or dark pathos.
Trying to determine where our loyalties lie is half the fun in The Master Cleanse, and it’s a game that the film plays quietly yet expertly throughout. Indeed, on both levels of storytelling -- conveying a narrative using cinematic language as well as crafting that narrative so that you want to “turn the page” -- writer/director Bobby Miller really never takes misstep.
In fact, he makes the storytelling, as well as the character and thematic development, look so easy that, like the characters, you can let your expectations get the better of you. Body-horror is rarely wedded to themes of personal transformation and uncovering our better selves, and yet I can’t help but feel that Miller wants us to experience this as part of the problem: the rejection of the monstrous is what, in fact, can turn us into monsters… or at least what we formerly considered to be the definition of monsters.
If all this seems not only abstract, but downright vague, please forgive me. That’s partly out of not wanting to spoil things, but mostly a result of still reflecting on the film, as I mentioned at the outset. After all, is a horror movie a horror movie simply because horrific things happen? What if the elements of horror, and even the more specific elements of body-horror, are necessary to express important ideas about what it means to be human—with all the personality flaws and physiological imperfections that this entails?
See The Master Cleanse at some point and tell me what you think. I feel it’s more a tragicomedy than standard horror… or, if it is horror, it’s the kind of film that makes us question our presuppositions about the genre itself.
The Master Cleanse screens at the Brooklyn Horror Film Festival on Saturday, October 15, at 2:00 p.m. More information here.