As trashy as it often is, reality TV can be strangely comforting, too. Who doesn’t like to switch their brain off from time to time to indulge in the entertainment equivalent of junk food? But what if your favourite supernatural reality show suddenly got a little too real for comfort, putting the cast and crew—and possibly your immortal soul—in danger?
That’s the idea at the heart of The Cleansing Hour, a film about a fake exorcism webcast fronted by the self-obsessed Father Max (Ryan Guzman) and run by his long-suffering business partner Drew (Kyle Gallner). The titular show is a big hit thanks to the elaborately staged hoaxes that the crew pulls off week after week, but Drew is concerned that their audience has plateaued. Little does he know that ratings are about to skyrocket when a real demon gatecrashes the live stream and possesses one of the actors—who just happens to be Drew’s fiancée, Lane (Alix Angelis).
To celebrate the release of The Cleansing Hour on Shudder, I caught up with director and co-writer Damien LeVeck to discuss the exorcism sub-genre, practical effects, and the importance of diversity in film. Here’s what he had to say.
SCREAM: Congrats on your debut feature! I know that The Cleansing Hour started life as a short—can you tell us about where the initial idea came from and what the process was like of turning it into a fully fledged feature?
DAMIEN LEVECK: Well, I’ve been working as a professional editor for about 15 years. During that time, I’ve edited all different genres, from narrative feature films to documentaries, but I’ve also done a lot of work in reality TV. And one of the things that has always fascinated me is that a lot of people think that reality TV is real. It’s anything but. A lot of people don’t realise that most reality TV is scripted to some degree, and whatever is not scripted can be heavily edited to look a certain way once you get into post-production.
So I took that idea and my fascination with videos that go on go viral online of people doing outrageous things. They’re typically of lower quality—they look like grainy cellphone video, shaky camera—and it gives it more of a vérité feel, so people all of a sudden give more credence to it. And I combined those two ideas with my love of exorcism horror. I thought, what if somebody were to put on a show to try and get social media attention by performing exorcisms? And it just sort of grew from there. The short film was made as a proof of concept for the feature film initially. We had an award-winning short—it did way better than I ever thought it would—and it ended up being a great sales tool to help finance the feature film.
You mentioned that you love exorcism films. Every exorcism film that has come out since The Exorcist owes something of a debt to it. Was it challenging to strike a balance between telling a story that would be recognisable and appealing to fans of that sub-genre while still differentiating your film?
Yeah, that was a challenge. But I suppose I had a leg up on it in that I’ve seen most of the major exorcism films that are well known. And I really did set out to try and do something different. First of all, I wanted to make a movie that I personally would want to see in terms of story and action and character and everything. And secondly, I wanted to pay homage to the exorcism films that I love the most, while at the same time making something that’s my own.
I don’t think any filmmaker truly wants to rip anybody off. I mean, we are heavily inspired by the films of the past. So in that respect, it was a challenge. But at the same time, I approached it with an air of trying to do something new and fresh.
One of my favourite elements was the character of Lane. Alix Angelis steals the show in that role; it’s such a physical performance, which is amazing considering she’s strapped to a chair for most of the film. How did you work with the actor to bring your demon to life?
Working with Alix was a real pleasure. First of all, finding the right person to play that role was a challenge. We had the other two roles cast and were trying to find who was going to be Lane, and we had over 3,000 submissions for that role. There were a lot of people that wanted to be Lane. We held three auditions and I just didn’t find somebody that clicked. So my casting director started sending me self-tapes, and eventually, I saw Alix’s tape and it was like a lightbulb went off—like, wow, that’s the one, she really nails it, she’s delivering the lines exactly how I imagined they would go. And then on top of that, you had that physical performance that made it look so unique.
So from the outset, Alix nailed it. From there, I started comparing every other tape to hers, and then eventually I was like, why am I even watching anything more? I know which one I want. And I showed it to my wife Natalie [LeVeck], who produced the movie with me, and she was like, “Oh my gosh, that’s so creepy. She’s amazing.”
After we cast Alix, I did some work with her. We did rehearse a little bit beforehand, just to get the physicality of the role down so that when we showed up on the day, she’d be totally ready. But I’ve got to give her credit for all of it because she put in so much thought into the character and making it unique. Whenever you meet Alix, she’s this little, unassuming person who’s very shy—the exact opposite of what you’ve seen in the movie. It’s really amazing to see how she transformed herself.
She’s fantastic. The rest of the cast is also strong, and it’s quite a diverse cast, which is refreshing to see. Was that something that you were consciously thinking about during the casting process?
It was actually. Finding a diverse cast is something that’s really important to me—I think that it’s really important for all movies, especially today. And for different reasons, but I think that it’s more representative of just the world we live in, unless you’re making like a World War I film where everyone is supposed to look one particular way.
You know, the movie set in LA. I live in LA—I’ve been here for 20 years, and I really wanted it to be representative of the city that I live in. Alix is Colombian, Ryan [Guzman] is Mexican, Kyle [Gallner] is white, and we’ve got a gender non-binary character in there. And we shot the movie in Romania, which had its own challenges in terms of diversity, because Romania is a very white country. That’s just how it is; it’s like shooting in Scandinavia. So we have a funny story—we actually had to pay almost double or triple to have what they call “special extras,” people of colour, for the background, like in the bar, to fill out the room with a more diverse crowd.
That’s interesting to hear that you went out of your way to make it happen; it feels like the opposite is true a lot of the time. You mentioned Ryan Guzman—his character, Father Max, is such an interesting character to follow. He feels like the natural successor to the Zak Bagans-type. I was curious if he was modelled after any particular reality TV personalities, since you come from that world.
I was certainly inspired by a lot of the ghost hunting shows, but I wouldn’t say that he was directly inspired. I wasn’t trying to write like a Zak Bagans for exorcism streaming shows. Max represents the worst of every fame-obsessed influencer on YouTube or Instagram or whatever it may be.
Not to pick on just the influencers—I think that Max represents the worst in all of us. We always have to be aware whenever we’re watching a movie like this that we’re all capable of this. So let’s not get up on our high horse and think, oh, that guy was such an asshole, I would never do that. There’s a little bit of Max in everybody, right?
For sure, and there’s definitely an interesting element in the film of the internet bringing out the best and worst in people. You have people who are genuinely concerned about Max’s wellbeing, and then you have people who want him to take his shirt off. Now that the film is coming to an online streaming platform, do you think that might have an impact on how people view its message about the internet and its effects on us?
I really hope it does. I want people to reflect on the larger message of the movie: that social media can be dangerous and that it can bring out the worst in you. The movie is very meta—I mean, you’re an audience watching an audience watching The Cleansing Hour streaming on the internet, so it’s meant to be a little tongue-in-cheek and self-reflexive.
But you know, whenever I set out to make a movie, the first thing I do is make it entertaining. I really want people to be able to sit back and enjoy the ride and have fun: that’s my number one priority. And then if they can walk out of that movie having been impacted by a larger message, whatever that message may be, then that’s a double win for me.
Speaking of the fun elements of the film, one of my favourite things was the use of practical effects, especially in that wonderful opening scene where you’re seeing how they fake the exorcisms. Was it important to you to use practical effects in addition to some of the CGI in the film?
Yeah. In fact, I wanted to do more. It was my first time making a movie with practical effects to this degree; we did as much as possible, and if I could have done more, I would have done more. I really wanted to do it all practically, but there were certain challenges with cost and time that made it not doable.
I’m so inspired by the great horror films of the 80s and 90s that use practical effects—everything from The Thing to Gremlins and Alien. I mean, these movies just have phenomenal practical effects that sell so well on screen—and a lot of times, really good practical effects are going to sell better than mediocre CG. But CG is hard. It’s very easy to criticise this stuff if you’ve never done it before, because shooting practical effects and pulling them off is as challenging as trying to get CG that looks photorealistic that the audience is going to buy. It’s an exercise to try and pull off well, and I am really, really happy with our effects team on The Cleansing Hour. StudioADI, Alec Gillis, and Tom Woodruff are Academy Award-nominated practical effects artists. And we had another artist who came from studioADI to Romania with us—his name’s Adam Dougherty, and he was in charge of basically overseeing all of our practical effects while we’re there.
So yeah, it was a lot of fun. And you mentioned the beginning of the movie with the fake exorcism—that was fun! Because another nice thing about practical effects is that sometimes you have those little moments that just add something that you didn’t anticipate. In the opening of the movie during the staged exorcism, the guy on the gurney’s scalp starts to bleed. And if you look carefully, there’s a little squirt of blood that kind of comes out like this [gestures upwards from his forehead], which is a little nod to like, okay, there’s something strapped to his head that’s squirting blood. I love that because it’s proof that these guys are faking what it is that they’re doing, but it’s also disturbing enough that you can embrace the conceit and go with it. Stuff like that happens and it’s lovely.
I’ll have to look out for that when I rewatch! Let’s talk about one of the CGI effects—the demon dogs.
The little imps!
Yeah! What was your thought process behind that design?
I had a general idea of what I wanted for that. I really wanted to create a little imp dog that nobody had seen before. In any movie I make, that’s very important to me: make a monster nobody has seen before. So I put a lot of effort into designing it and making it look right. I worked with a couple of different concept artists and we hashed it out.
It always begins with an idea and sort of telling a story of what the monster is. So the idea was, if a demon is a fallen angel, then it might have sort of humanoid characteristics—but then it goes down into hell and its entire body decays, it sort of hunches over, and then it somehow ends up on four legs and its body just starts to morph into other things. If you look at its feet, it’s sort of walking on his knuckles. It started as a sketch that turned into something that I thought looked pretty awesome.
I wanted more imps! The imps were a lot of fun. But that was our biggest CG sequence in the movie. It’s an example of something that I initially wanted to do practically and it didn’t work out. But ultimately, I’m very happy with the end result. I think they look pretty great.
So what’s next for you, or what you would like to do next?
The pandemic has allowed me to be pretty productive. I’ve had a really great year just work-wise. I wrote a script for an action movie that I’m currently rewriting, and I have two horrors that I’m working on. I’ve got a classic haunted house that’s pretty much ready to go—it’s all set in Ireland against the backdrop of the Irish countryside and it integrates Irish folklore, which is very, very creepy. I really want to make this movie in Ireland. And then the other one is a contained creature body horror that I’m just very excited about. It’s a movie that’s actually perfect for Shudder that’s got this amazing, beautiful monster that’s grotesque and horrible in every way. That one I want to do entirely practical—it would be a full-body suit, a massive creature build. That’s one that we are trying to get together right now.
Awesome, fingers crossed! And my final question is, what is your favourite scary movie?
My favourite scary movie? Hmm. That is a tough one. I immediately gravitate towards the exorcism movies, because I really, really enjoy that genre. Saying The Exorcist kind of feels like a cop-out, but it is definitely toward the top of my list in terms of scares.
Here’s the hard thing: I’m so desensitised that I don’t generally get scared by anything. But that’s a great question. For now, let me just say The Exorcist and I’ll explain why. I think the reason why I like that movie so much is because it really is the full package. It feels very authentic—it feels real, you can believe that what’s happening is happening. I believe in demons, I believe in evil spirits, and I think that most people, regardless of their worldview, believe in them too, and that’s the reason why they find horror films so scary, especially ones that deal with supernatural beings. So I think that one succeeds because it’s the closest to being rooted in authenticity, combined with a great story. It’s not even really a horror movie—it’s more of a family melodrama, and that, I think, is truly terrifying.
I think you can count on one hand all the great exorcism movies. The Exorcism of Emily Rose is a really good one. Deliver Us from Evil by Scott Derrickson. The Last Exorcism I thought was pretty impressive, and there’s some crossover between that and The Cleansing Hour. These are ones that I think are really admirable in terms of how they do something unique for the genre. So I kind of answered your question. Sort of. [Laughs]
No that’s a great answer—no one’s going to object to you saying The Exorcist.
Yeah. You know, whenever you approach what you think of a movie, I think it’s really important that you try and level with the filmmaker and understand what he or she was trying to accomplish. I don’t think it’s fair to judge every movie in the same way. I’m not gonna watch a Werner Herzog movie in the same way that I’m gonna watch a Steven Spielberg movie. I’m just not, because they’re two totally different filmmakers, they’re doing two totally different things, at least from my perspective. So in terms of scares, what’s a scary movie? Not all movies are scary in the same way. Suspiria is scary, but in a very different way from The Exorcist.
For sure. Thank you for taking the time to chat with us—I can’t wait to see the movie again!
Thank you so much! And I would love it if people would share their thoughts with me online—I’m on Twitter and Instagram @damienleveck.
The Cleansing Hour is now streaming on Shudder in the UK, Ireland, US, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.
Words: Samantha McLaren (@themeatispeople)