From Carpenter to Lynch, independent filmmakers are increasingly drawn to '80s and '90s nostalgia for their work. The Master Cleanse, the first feature from renowned shorts director Bobby Miller, takes a stab at the good old days with a pastiche of Gremlins-era creature features and Cronenberg body horror.
Pairing his bubbly sitcom energy with the dramatic chops of a less-restrained Joaquin Phoenix, Big Bang Theory star Johnny Galecki is a mostly affable lead as the quirkily named Paul Burger. We immediately learn that he's been ditched by a fiancé and lost his job, and he's desperate for direction in life. Thanks to a convenient TV ad, he learns about Let's Get Pure, a mysterious cult-like organization that promises a better life.
Eventually, Paul makes his way to a forest retreat with three massively flat characters (including a pouty love interest Maggie as played by Anna Friel). There, cult leader Ken Roberts (Oliver Platt) and his partner (occasional scene-stealer Anjelica Houston) encourages them to go on a cleanse of nothing but their pre-prepared juices (one camper declares it "tastes like an asshole"). The colourful gunk pays off as the camp attendees puke up strange, tadpole-like creatures in their respective cabins.
It's immediately clear to everyone except the characters that the creatures represent the baggage that each character is carrying around. Unfortunately, the film's lack of character development or thematic nuance make that message a little too heavy-handed.
That might be because the main story is really the only thing that happens. While brevity should always be encouraged in modern filmmaking, it feels like Miller spends too much time making his point and not enough time fleshing out the world he created. Thus,The Master Cleanse feels like an elongated short, ultimately playing out like a horror-comedy with neither scares nor jokes.
Fortunately, the film is somewhat saved by its fantastic puppet work. The puked-up creatures look far more adorable (and later grotesque) than the half-baked metaphors from which they were birthed.
(Alcide Bava, Bron Studios, Gilbert Films)