When Blumhouse TV approached Hannah Macpherson with the notion of a horror film set in the subculture of purity balls the young filmmaker was more intrigued than informed. “First of all, I had to Google what that was,” the New Mexico native admits. “And then I went down the rabbit hole.”
That rabbit hole led Macpherson into the world of the prom-like purity events where daughters vow to save their virginity for their future husbands and a marriage that’s often arranged by their fathers. For Macpherson, the exploration was instantly inspiring on a creative level but routinely infuriating on a cultural and social level. The result is Pure, the new horror film with themes of gruesome group-think (think of a high school Handmaid’s Tale or a church-camp redux of Midsommar) as well as supernatural menace (Carrie would have been an ideal peer counselor).
Blumhouse TV produced Pure, which has just made its world premiere on In the Dark, the Hulu anthology series that has a once-a-month schedule for new releases. With Pure, the anthology brand closed out its first full-year release calendar with a movie that that puts its teen characters (the cast includes Jahkara J. Smith, McKaley Miller, Ciara Bravo, and Annalisa Cochrane) squarely between a demon presence and the controlling fathers who staged the vow-taking ritual. Guess which side the film depicts as true evil?
Macpherson knows her movie will infuriate some and she’s okay with that. “If people aren’t pissed off after watching this movie,” she says, “they’re a lost cause.”
Deadline caught up with Macpherson (who studied Film Production at Loyola Marymount before attending the UCLA Professional Program in Writing for Television in 2014) to talk about the politics of possession and the price of purity. The young filmmaker (who is repped by CAA and Anonymous Content) is one of the four female directors who contributed a film to the Into the Dark anthology’s first year of releases (the others were Sophia Takai, Chelsea Stardust, and Gigi Saul Guerrero).
For Blumhouse Productions, the infusion of female directors is delivering on last year’s promise by founder Jason Blum to “do better” on the gender representation front by working with more female directors. Blumhouse Productions is renowned for high-return horror fare (like Get Out, Insidious, Purge, Paranormal Activity, and last year’s Halloween) but last October the company’s leader was torched on social media after saying female directors are hard to find. Blum apologized for the comment and punctuated it with a pledge to do better. To his credit: This December, Universal will release the Blumhouse remake of Black Christmas, directed by Sophia Takal working off a slasher script she co-wrote with April Wolfe that has sorority girls battling back against a bloodthirsty stalker. For Blum, who has produced about 90 movies since 2000, it will be just the third directed by a woman.
DEADLINE: Horror films have become a robust forum for social commentary like no other in contemporary Hollywood. What is it about the genre right now that makes it so ripe for message movies?
HANNAH MACPHERSON: People don’t like to be preached at, pun intended. They want to be entertained, they want to be made to feel something. Horror movies disguise social commentary like a wolf in sheep’s clothing. When you scare someone or distract them with tension, fear, excitement, you can shove a message down their throats. It becomes more palatable.
DEADLINE: The clock seems to be turning back on social and gender issues. Does that raise the stakes for a project like this one? Does it raise the level of difficulty?
MACPHERSON: There is nothing more horrifying to me than the way men feel it necessary to tell women how to behave. We’ve gone backwards in time regarding our reproductive rights. This movie didn’t need a supernatural angle. The documentaries were scary enough. So I wanted to create an entity that the girls are afraid of at first but who is actually there to protect them. And all the tension and actual fear in the movie is actually surrounding the fathers, who are far more sinister than Lilith could ever be.
DEADLINE: There were plenty of potential pitfalls in the film’s portrayal of the fathers, too. Was that something you identified early on?
MACPHERSON: I wanted to stay far away from any mustache-twirling villains for the fathers, and I knew we needed a Pastor that everyone could like. I wanted the fathers to feel real, to maybe even be relatable. But most importantly, I wanted the Pastor to feel cool and charismatic and good-natured and passionate about his message. He would tell you he cares deeply, and even though I believe strongly that he is very wrong, he is a complicated human. Scott Porter brought this character to life in ways I couldn’t have imagined, and I was so fortunate to get to work with him. You immediately understand why people would drink his Kool-Aid.
DEADLINE: The film presents demonic possession as a upgrade for any young woman otherwise facing an unnatural parental possession. That’s going to stir up some people.
MACPHERSON: I call it a “reverse possession” movie, because Shay wants to become possessed at the end, begs Lilith to enter her, so she can punish those who have taken the girls’ power away. It’s absolutely imperative that people talk about this subject. It’s not about religion, although most religions should look at their approach to gender equality, but it’s about power and control and oppression. This is not “parents taking care of their children” – this is a man (because mothers are not allowed to participate) telling a young woman that if she were left to her own devices she would make bad choices. He will keep her safe, and not just until she’s 18, but until she’s given to another man, her future husband. If people aren’t pissed off after watching this movie, they’re a lost cause.
DEADLINE: If your film was screening in two adjacent theaters, one filled with daughters and the other filled with their fathers, which one do you want to attend and why?
MACPHERSON: What a great question! I would have to sit with the daughters because that is the energy I want to be around and celebrate. I didn’t make this movie for women only, I made it for men, too. I want everyone to feel uncomfortable.