“The Master Cleanse” (BIFAN 2016): Retreat Goers Let Out the Monsters Inside Them

Often the things that frighten us most are creations of our own making, yet when given the opportunity to rid ourselves of these fears and frustrations, many of us are reluctant to eliminate the negativity, as evidenced in writer/director Bobby Miller’s The Master Cleanse (Canada/USA, 2016). Combining elements of body horror, new-age-philosophy satire, and wry dramedy without ever committing too much to one style, this film is highly original and takes viewers on a most unusual journey.

Paul (Johnny Galecki) is down on his luck, still hurting after having been dumped by his fiancee and losing a good job around the same time. His hot dog and chocolate bar diet reflect his state of mind. One night he awakens from sleep on his couch to see a television commercial offering the opportunity to “get pure” at a free spiritual retreat. With nothing to lose, he attends a meeting for potential attendees. He is chosen for the three-day retreat, along with an actress he is drawn to named Maggie (Anna Friel) and a young couple made up of skeptical boyfriend Eric (Kyle Gallner) and quiet girlfriend Lily (Diana Bang).

Master Cleanse drinks
From left: Paul (Johnny Galecki), Maggie (Anna Friel), Lily (Diana Bang), and Eric (Kyle Gallner) take their first sips of personalized cleansing juices as they begin spiritual journeys in  The Master Cleanse.

At the secluded forest retreat area, the guests are greeted by long-time cleanser Fredericks (genre film stalwart Kevin J. O’Connor) and site leader Lily (Angelica Huston). Lily tells them that part of their cleansing process, which includes four jars of personally compounded liquid concoctions, will be the ominous sounding elimination and termination phases.

The elimination phase is where the body horror starts. To give away much more would be to spoil certain aspects of the film but suffice it to say that fans of practical effects will find plenty to hold their interest from this point onward.

The entire cast is fantastic, which is important as The Master Cleanse is very much a character-driven film. Oliver Platt’s character Ken Roberts, originator of the system behind the Get Pure retreat, joins in during the third act. Platt is terrific as a soft spoken, straight-talking, charismatic man who seems to teeter on going over a dangerous edge. Johnny Galecki brings a great deal of poignancy to his role as Paul, a fragile man who realizes his shortcomings but seems powerless to do much about them. Anna Friel is marvelous as Maggie, a woman who shows a tough exterior and does her best not to let anyone too close. Angelica Huston plays Lily, a second-in-command cultlike leader, as an odd, unsettling woman who bellows one minute and dispenses quiet advice the next. Kyle Gallner (no stranger to genre films himself, with turns in offerings like Red State, A Haunting in Connecticut, and the 2010 A Nightmare on Elm Street reboot) balances Eric with arrogance and fragility, and Diana Bang (Bates Motel, Fringe) imparts Lily with a reserved quality as the strength behind her insistence that she and Eric attend the retreat together gives way over time.

Master Cleanse pipe
Paul (Johnny Galecki) is about to make a startling discovery as examines a gooey kitchen sink pipe.

It is important to note that The Master Cleanse is not an outright horror film – actually, it’s not an outright any kind of film, which is a big part of its charm and appeal to me – but there are creepy, deadly situations at play. Danger often seems right around the corner and Ken Roberts and Lily have a threatening air about them. Supernatural or quasisupernatural forces are part of the mix.

During the elimination phase for Paul and his fellow retreat goers, the psychological issues they expel from their bodies manifest themselves physically. That’s as spoilery as I will get in this review, other than to say that these manifestations are presented with top-notch practical effects (sweetened just a bit with CGI) on a lower budget.

Master Cleanse stars
Maggie (Anna Friel) and Paul (Johnny Galecki) find themselves dealing with much more than they bargained for during their spiritual retreat.

In his first feature film, writer/director Bobby Miller does a phenomenal job of creating a wholly unique vision that is equally touching, humorous, and thrilling. He has created characters that we can relate to and invest in, and his screenplay and dialog tie the film’s disparate elements together wonderfully. The Master Cleanse defies categorization and offers plenty of panache. Unconventional and filled with offbeat heart, this was one of my favorite movies at this year’s Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival as well as one of my favorite cinematic endeavors of the year, regardless of genre.

The Master Cleanse had its Asian premiere at the 20th Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival (BIFAN) in South Korea (July 21-31, 2016).

The Master Cleanse: 4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

Master Cleanse poster

Joseph Perry
Joseph Perry fell in love with horror films as a preschooler when he first saw the Gill-Man swim across the TV screen in "The Creature from The Black Lagoon" and Mothra battle Godzilla in "Godzilla Vs. The Thing.” His education in fright fare continued with TV series such as "The Twilight Zone" and "Outer Limits," along with legendary northern California horror host Bob Wilkins’ "Creature Features." His love for silver age and golden age comic books, including horror titles from Gold Key, Dell, and Marvel started around age 5.

He is a contributing writer for the "Phantom of the Movies VideoScope" and “Drive-In Asylum” print magazines and the websites Horror Fuel, Diabolique Magazine, The Scariest Things, B&S About Movies, and When It Was Cool. He is a co-host of the "Uphill Both Ways" pop culture nostalgia podcast and also writes for its website. Joseph occasionally proudly co-writes articles with his son Cohen Perry, who is a film critic in his own right.

A former northern Californian and Oregonian, Joseph has been teaching, writing, and living in South Korea since 2008.