The Big Bang Theory‘s Johnny Galecki hasn’t starred in a horror movie since his memorable turn in classic nineties slasher I Know What You Did Last Summer (he’s due to star in the upcoming Rings), so it’s nice to see him back in the fold with The Master Cleanse, a tight, funny and very sweet little creature feature in the vein of Gremlins and the Ken Marino-starring Bad Milo! Will this role do for Galecki what Florence Foster Jenkins did for Simon Helberg? Not quite, but it’s a step in the right direction.
Galecki is Paul, a lonely misfit who Googles things like “does psychiatry work?” (bringing forth a deluge of popups) and wants so desperately to communicate with other people that he’s willing to drag out an interaction with the building super. Naturally, he’s an easy mark for the cleanse of the title, which takes place at a middle-of-nowhere retreat led by Oliver Platt’s devious sort-of villain, and the face of which is none other than Angelica Huston, who is introduced screaming her head off and just gets weirder from there.
The main reason for Paul to do this cleanse is so he can get closer to Anna Friel’s struggling actress, Maggie, who lies her way into the fold and has dubious reasons for joining, judging by her near-constant workouts. Also along for the ride are Eric (Red State‘s Kyle Gallner, excellent once again) and his girlfriend, who is more into the idea than he is but doesn’t take it as seriously – much to her detriment. After a few days of vomiting from their liquid meals, the participants discover their expulsions have created very real beings that they now need to take care of.
The Master Cleanse boasts a seriously high-calibre cast, but it’s the gooey monsters, lovingly created using old-school practical means, that are the real stars here. Writer-director Bobby Miller, making his feature debut, was heavily influenced by the practical FX-led movies of his childhood, including E.T, Beetlejuice, Gremlins, etc. As a result, a lot of consideration went into the creation of the gross-but-cute monsters, who were achieved by a combination of puppetry, animatronics and even the classic man-in-suit method.
Although the idea behind The Master Cleanse, of dark thoughts and feelings being purged out of the participants’ systems and literally manifesting themselves as physical creatures, is a dark one, the flick is borderline sweet and surprisingly cuddly once the little guys take center-stage. It helps that there are no real villains here. The always dependable Platt (cast him in everything, damn it), aside from looking like a cross between Dr. Moreau and Gene Jones’s psycho from The Sacrament, is a kind, well-intentioned leader.
His methods might be a bit nuts, and there’s a lot of moral ambiguity once he asks his subjects to do the unthinkable with their expulsions, but he’s never a black and white bad guy. Likewise, Paul and Maggie are layered, flawed characters. Their battles come to a head in a very literal sense, but their backgrounds aren’t entirely fleshed out, so it never feels as though their fate is sealed. Galecki produced, so this is clearly a passion project for him but the movie, more than anything else, succeeds as a thoughtful, and thought-provoking creature feature rather than a star vehicle for his post-Big Bang career.
The tagline for The Master Cleanse is “let’s get pure” which, along with its dark, ominous first act suggests this is going to be a far bleaker story than it actually is. The flick has more in common with Bad Milo! than anything else, owing a huge debt to Gremlins, too, obviously, but it’s a remarkably innovative, inventive and poignant little indie gem at its heart, whose characters, both human and non, make a real impact and whose ending packs a serious emotional punch. Seek it out and you, too, will soon fall in love with its “weird Butterball” monsters.
WICKED RATING: 8/10
Director(s): Bobby Miller
Writer(s): Bobby Miller
Stars: Johnny Galecki, Anna Friel, Oliver Platt, Angelica Huston
Studio/ Production Co: Alcide Bava Pictures
Length: 81 minutes
Sub-Genre: Creature feature