Obsession, abuse, beauty and friendship lay at the heart of Jon Knautz’s latest addition to his horror filmography. While this may sound like another toxic friendship film about competitive friends, The Cleaning Lady takes a women-driven approach to the disfigured villain trope exploring the ways in which women are exploited and diminished in day to day life through the unlikely friendship of Alice (Alexis Kendra) and Shelly (Rachel Alig).
Alice is a beauty therapist and ‘love addict’, attending S.L.A.A meetings regularly she finds it hard to maintain healthy relationships and the films beginning finds her in the midst of an affair with a married man. After being convinced by her support group to call off the affair, Alice tries her best to redirect her life by focusing more on her work, gaining new clients and nourishing her body in the typical white woman fashion- yoga.
Enter Shelly, a maintenance worker in Alice’s apartment complex who has an unusual facial disfigurement. Assuming Shelly’s face is the product of an accident and her long hair, cap-wearing appearance a symptom of shyness or embarrassment, Alice takes Shelly under her wing hiring her to clean her apartment a couple of days a week in exchange for a strange blossoming friendship.
Shelly’s presence in Alice’s life at first seems like a catharsis for both involved, Alice is distracted from her affair and gives off mild saviour complex making-up Shelley in the vision of a traditionally beautiful woman and Shelly finally resolves the loneliness she was plagued with. Shelly’s presence on-screen however is often unsettling, slow zooms and quick pans show Shelly’s increasing obsession with Alice. Fragmented memories and scenes of Shelly after work hours unearth hidden trauma and abuse stemming from her mother (a truly ghoulish performance from JoAnne McGrath) in a string of highly uncomfortable scenes each the more shocking in their depiction of childhood abuse and the pursuit to be the perfect woman.
Whilst Shelly’s memories are horrific, Knautz always pulls back during those scenes, never fully explaining or showing the extent of the trauma inflicted on her. Despite this being a smart move to minimise the violence against women on screen- this is after all a film about women and often the societal expectations placed upon them, sometimes the lack of full explanation behind Shelly’s motives does leave the film feeling a little unresolved. That aside, there is plenty of lingering scenes of Shelly alone that are truly creepy, as she explores perfection and beauty in the most disturbing ways.
The slow burn nature of the first two thirds of the film is a relieving treat, largely thanks to the script co-written by Knautz and Alexis Kendra (Alice), allowing the characters to develop in both their own spaces and alongside each other before making way for a gory slasher final act.
Through grisly violence and horrifying visages The Cleaning Lady manages to be a creepy take on the pursuit of perfection and a harrowing tale of childhood abuse, showing that monsters come in many forms.
by Chloe Leeson
Chloe Leeson is the founder of Screen Queens. She hails from the north of England (the proper north that people think is actually Scotland but isn’t). Her lifesource is Harmony Korine’s 90s Letterman interviews and Ezra Miller’s jawline. She is a costume designer for hire who spends way too much time watching bad horror movies. Her favourite films are Into The Wild, Lords of Dogtown, Stand by Me and Pan’s Labyrinth. She rants about cinema screenings @kawaiigoff and logs them on letterboxd here