The Master Cleanse follows Paul, a regular guy whose life has unraveled in spite (or perhaps because) of his best efforts. With his optimism crumbling slowly, Paul discovers the Lets Get Pure program in which four applicants will be sent on a retreat to cleanse his mind and body of the negative energies and toxins that lurk in their bodies. However, this rejection of the negative takes on a very literal form when Paul proceeds to eject more than just bodily fluids from his purge, producing a little creature from his body, whom his growing attachment to lead him to face just how far he is willing to go to get pure.

The Master Cleanse is a hybrid of horror and comedy, which really doesn’t strongly exist as either. Instead, director/writer Bobby Miller creates an emotionally enriched oddity that instilled with a bittersweet sensibility that moves from screwball to genuinely heartfelt in its own unique sphere, reinforced by a sense of effortless momentum to the film, bringing together character focus and comical pursuit into a streamlined and quirky experience. The balance of humour on display is pitched just perfectly, managing to play awareness and innocence in a combination that creates opportunities to bounce between sly and sweet in an entertaining rally of tones. In this sense, it clearly reflects the cartoonish playfulness of classic Joe Dante in combination between external excess and internal warmth, in particular evident in the use of the creatures as representing the repressed negative emotions of the characters. In having the embodiment of all these apparently destructive feelings be initially represented in a quite frankly utterly adorable package Miller opens up the space for understanding our relationship to emotions on a deeper level and our relationship to them, reflecting the multifaceted explorations of the the nuclear family in Gremlins, the inherent paranoia of suburban community in The Burbs, and particularly, the relationship between physical body and emotional connection in Innerspace, a theme that directly runs through The Master Cleanse.

Johnny Galecki is so effortlessly endearing as the down on his luck but determined Paul, able play the everyman with just the right balance of hope and disillusion where the character becomes more than just pathetic, but a character to emotionally invest in as an everyman to believe in. Galecki’s chemistry with co-star Friel, playing the guarded Maggie, is one of the true strengths of the film, as the two performers each grasp fully onto their character’s subtle, and not so subtle, neuroses in a way that makes their blossoming relationship feel built on something real and build organically for an audience to embrace, crucially focusing less on romance but the need for human connection and understanding. While Galecki and Friel stand as the clear heart of the film, the focus upon them leads to a clear trade off with the secondary characters who are at best visible and at worst completely disposable, particularly the secondary couple who have taken on the cleanse to solve relationship problems and could have stood as an interesting reflection of Paul and Maggie, and a comment on the fragility of communication in such a close relationship. However, just when it seems the two may be given some space within the film to expand and challenge, they are pushed to the very fringes of events. It feels like a missed opportunity, but luckily the central drive of Paul, Maggie and their respective creatures keeps the momentum of the film driving forward, in spite of losing some potential complexity.

Speaking of the creatures, special appreciation has to be given to both the decision to use practical effects, and particularly, the overwhelming quality of these effects. The creatures themselves are absolutely wonderful in the simplicity of their design and the amount of character they are able to express, reminiscent of perhaps the ultimate 80’s critter creature – Gizmo from Gremlins.  The decision to use practical effects reveals its importance in terms of the tactility it provides in the interaction between the performers and the creatures; there is a real connection between the puppetry and the performances as they can touch, hold and react to something tangible, allowing the actors to truly find the reality through the zany ridiculousness of the concept. Furthermore this connection extends to the audience. When the Paul’s little creature smiled for the first time, the entire Frightfest audience let out an audible noise of joy; and when you get the Frightfest audience to do that without the help of blood and guts, you know there is something genuine and striking about the texture of that design.

Perhaps the most evident flaw within the film is the fact that it misses a vital bite to contrast with the endearing emotional core; an edge that it very occasionally teases but is disappointingly left as a vague undercurrent, when the film could have evolved into a more affective vision, with an injection of threat and unpredictability to enhance the impact of the emotional interaction that floods the film. You only need to look at Gremlins to see just how potent that combination can be, and sadly The Master Cleanse just doesn’t take the risk to throw itself into that space with the wild abandon it needs.

The Master Cleanse is a sweet little oddity that thrives on the strength of its emotional resonance and the endearing nature of its creature design. It may be simple to a fault, but ultimately it’s a fun experience with a tremendous amount of heart and charm. I can’t stress enough how much you’ll want your own little cleansed creature to take home with you.

Horror Channel Frightfest review: The Master Cleanse
3.5Overall Score
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About The Author

Matthew Hammond is a full time cinephile, specializing in cult, art house and 1980’s cinema. While film is his overwhelming passion, Matthew has been known to enjoy comic books, Sherlock Holmes stories and a good film related T-shirt. Feel free to email me with any questions or comments: mattpaul61@o2.co.uk