Another (Halloween) week, another horror film! This one brought to you by ridiculous standards for beauty and overly involved toxic friendships.
The Cleaning Lady
A cleaning lady becomes obsessed with her employer, going way overboard with the additional free services no one asked for.
Scrubbing floors, clearing bathtub drains, blending live rats into a puree…it’s all in a day’s work when you’re a cleaning lady. It’s clear from the get-go that Shelly is a deeply disturbed woman; as they say, watch out for the quiet ones.
Meanwhile, love addict Alice is troubled by her relationship with boyfriend Michael, who is married with a child of his own. Though Michael promises Alice a lovely vacation in Italy, he fails to come through on his promises, and sponsor Miranda encourages Alice to get serious about ending things (again).
After hiring maintenance worker Shelly under the table to do some cleaning around her apartment, Alice sees an opportunity for a beautiful new friendship to develop. During the day, Alice’s at-home spa and makeover business keeps her busy; in the evening, Alice begins to depend on Shelly to prevent her from contacting Michael.
Shelly is an extremely quiet woman who keeps to herself. Self-conscious about terrible burns on her face, she usually avoids all relationships. Perhaps it’s no surprise when the attention-starved Shelly immediately latches onto Alice with a certain degree of intensity.
As it turns out, Shelly has a rather disturbing backstory that explains her twisted behavior. Her mother’s money making techniques were incredibly warped during young Shelly’s childhood–though Shelly certainly finds a way to exact her revenge.
Very quickly, Shelly becomes the friend always pushing Alice to be a better version of herself; in fact, Shelly believes Alice is mere steps away from perfection. Shelly pressures Alice to give up smoking and stay firm in her commitment not to get back together with Michael.
Meanwhile, Alice gives Shelly a makeover, even donating a brightly colored dress to wear. This is a big mistake, as Shelly realizes her potential to become more like Alice–including making a mold of her face after she falls into chloroform-induced sleep, thus giving new meaning to a girls’ night in with face masks.
When Alice inevitably reunites with Michael, a distraught Shelly snaps. Witnessing the night out is Michael’s wife Helen, who follows her husband’s car to a creepily remote location. Will Helen arrive in time to help her husband’s mistress–and will she even want to help once she discovers Alice’s identity?
3/5 Pink Panther Heads
Shelly is truly a chilling character whose reactions, though extreme, feel plausible. She embodies the Hollywood (and societal) obsession with perfection, especially in her quest to change and control Alice. In contrast to the external beauty that fascinates Shelly, some of the things she does are absolutely vile and bloodily grotesque. I do applaud the film’s ability to be genuinely disturbing without relying solely on gore to shock viewers (though there’s also plenty of that to go around).
Meanwhile, Alice is perhaps undeserving of the ordeals she experiences at Shelly’s hands, but she is certainly not a flawless character. Let’s not forget that the relationship between the two main characters is possible only because of Alice’s willingness to take advantage of Shelly’s situation. Alice wants a cleaning lady without having to do the work of finding or paying one on the books. In fact, the situation is risky for Shelly as she openly admits her supervisor wants her to perform maintenance–not do cleaning work. However, Alice treats Shelly a bit like her charity project to make herself feel like a good person.
Overall, the film has some interesting messages about privilege, unreasonable beauty standards, and the monsters created in our quest for perfection. However, I’m still puzzling over what just happened in this film, and would’ve liked the creepiness to unfold more slowly, like a…death’s-head moth emerging from a cocoon?