To date, the year 2019 has given us several strong theatrical horror outings. We’re only halfway through the year, and Hollywood has already given us Jordan Peele’s Us, Escape Room, and Happy Death Day2U. What’s been seemingly missing are the low-key indie horror flicks. A few gems have popped up here and there, but too few and too far between. Now a handful of streaming platforms have released The Cleaning Lady, which promises some disturbing horror for indie film fans.
Alice is young, beautiful, and successful. She’s also stuck in a dead-end relationship with an older, married man. Looking to pry herself away from her unhealthy relationships, Alice hires and befriends the building cleaning lady, Shelly. Lonely and physically disfigured, Shelly becomes increasingly obsessed with Alice. As things take a deadly turn, Alice learns that Shelly’s scars go much deeper than what’s on the surface.
The Cleaning Lady Will Get Under Your Skin
First and foremost, The Cleaning Lady is a psychological horror about damaged people and toxic relationships. Director Jon Knautz focuses most of the horror on the discomfort that the movie’s relationships and situations elicit. For most of the movie, Knautz maintains a foreboding tone, which works through your anticipation of what might happen. When Shelly stands over a sleeping Alice, the dread emerges from the dreadful things your mind conjures up. The Cleaning Lady also gets under your skin through the sheer discomfort elicited by things implied in some scenes. Brief flashbacks establish Shelly’s abusive relationship with her monstrous mother. Even the subtle image of Shelly in Alice’s bathtub, wearing a mask molded from Alice’s face, unnerves.
For most of the movie, Knautz maintains a foreboding tone, which works through your anticipation of what might happen.
However, as The Cleaning Lady hits its final act, Knautz gives into some basic slasher tropes. Things shift suddenly from psychological to more visceral graphic violence. On the one hand, Shelly’s torture of Alice’s boyfriend will undoubtedly elicit more cringing and discomfort from audiences. It’s not that these few moments necessarily feel out of place in the movie. Rather the ‘stalk and chase’ scenes and graphic violence kind of betray the tone Knautz had so carefully developed. They’re simply not necessary additions to a movie that was already unsettling.
Rich Subtext and Strong, Subtle Performances
Alexis Kendra, who plays ‘Alice’, also wrote the screenplay along with Knautz. In addition to its unsettling atmosphere, The Cleaning Lady offers some interest subtext for audiences. What we have is the kind of horror movie that audiences can read in different ways. Certainly, The Cleaning Lady is about abuse and toxic relationships. Kendra’s ‘Alex’, a beautiful young woman sleeping with an older married man, could easily have been a distasteful character. Instead, The Cleaning Lady takes pains to show the loneliness of Alex’s relationship and its adverse effects on her. Similarly, flashbacks of Shelly’s relationship with her mother illustrate how some bad relationships can trap people. Even Alex and Shelly’s friendship is toxic from its outset, a point conveyed through the movie’s strong, subtle performances.
What we have is the kind of horror movie that audiences can read in different ways.
Where some viewers may be frustrated is with the movie’s more ambiguous ending. Though there are clear implications of what happens to Alice, The Cleaning Lady’s ending is also imbued with symbolic imagery. Shelly’s childhood dollhouse, and a single blonde-haired doll, tie into the movie’s closing moments. It raises more provoking ideas about the nature of toxic relationships and possessiveness. Or maybe not. Kendra and Knautz’s screenplay doesn’t spell things out for you. This leaves The Cleaning Lady’s ending open to interpretation.
The Cleaning Lady a Disturbing and Twisted Experience
Though The Cleaning Lady gives in a little to slasher antics in its final act, Knautz largely maintains the focus on characters. Compelling characters and thoughtful subtext ensure that The Cleaning Lady is most disturbing when there’s no actual graphic violence onscreen. Like the best psychological horror movies, Knautz leaves you with an unnerving feeling that lingers. As we approach the halfway point to the year, The Cleaning Lady stands out as one of the better indie horror efforts.