Here at The Playlist, where we pray to our benign Leader every time we hit “publish,” abstain from all sexual activity, grow our own vegetables and pause in our tasks thrice daily to face due East and chant our mantra “Kurosawa, Kurosawa, Bergman, Tarkovsky, Kubrick, Ommm,” we’d obviously know better than to get ourselves caught up in any sort of cult. But the lure that can be exerted over weaker souls than our own perfected ones has led to some fascinating, often chilling films, whether set within the confines of the sect or dealing with the process of deprogramming and reinsertion into ordinary society. The latter is the background for this month’s release of “Faults,” from debut feature director Riley Stearns (review here) and which stars Mary Elizabeth Winstead as a cult member whose parents hire a has-been expert played by Leland Orser to un-brainwash her during a week in a bland hotel room.
“Faults” has many different tones and textures and is overall perhaps best described as black comedy/drama hybrid, but the subject matter has lent itself to many genres over the years, from melodrama to coming-of-age tale to thriller to psychodrama to most frequently horror. A lot of name-brand auteurs have gotten in on the game, but seeing as we’ve written about those examples a great deal already (“Eyes Wide Shut,” “Rosemary’s Baby,” “The Master,” “The Village,” “The Ninth Gate” and so on) we thought we’d dedicate this feature to a few more obscure picks. So take the phone off the hook, sever all ties with your families (who don’t really love you anyway, not like we do) and abandon yourself to our selection of 13 (of course it’s 13) cult films about cults.
While he can have hardly known it at the time, with “Suspiria” Dario Argento made probably the artistic apex of the giallo movement he pioneered along with fellow Italians Mario Bava and Lucio Fulci. Retrospectively and despite coming a little after the giallo explosion of the early ’70s, this film has become the entry-level key to unlocking the whole genre, featuring its trademark lush, hyperstylized, color-saturated visuals, lashings of gore, an undercurrent of lurid female eroticism and a magnificent score —in this case provided by prog rockers Goblin who made it onto our list of Best Horror Scores of all time for this and Argento’s “Tenebre.” The film concerns an American ballerina (Jessica Harper) who transfers to a sinister German Dance Academy covertly run by a satanic coven of witches, including “Dark Shadows” star Joan Bennett. The mish-mash of languages and accents from the English, American, German and Italian cast didn’t matter much as the whole thing was post-dubbed anyway, which adds to the film’s uncanny cronkiness today. But once you become attuned to the garish unsubtlety of Argento’s work, “Suspiria” is undeniably creepy and evocative, tuning in to burgeoning female sexuailty as a metaphor for a quasi-mystical transformation process that is unknowable but also oddly beautiful without ever trying to transcend its exploitation / b-movie basis. That was a job for subsequent admirers and imitators, such as Darren Aronofsky, whose Oscar-winning “Black Swan” owes “Suspiria” a heavy debt.
“Sound Of My Voice” (2011)
One of the most striking and original low-budget American directorial debuts of the last few years, “Sound Of My Voice” is a puzzle box of a movie that never got the audience it deserved in theaters, but appropriately gains more and more followers with each passing year since release. The first feature from director Zal Batmanglij, who co-wrote with star Brit Marling, sees a young couple (Christopher Denham and Nicole Vicius) attempting to infiltrate a mysterious group led by Maggie (Marling), a charismatic women who claims to be from a post-apocalyptic 2054 and has traveled through time to prepare occupants of the present era for the horrors to come. The film’s a true genre-bender, flitting between thriller, sci-fi, Lynchian mindbender and a genuinely incisive examination into the cult of personality: Denham’s Peter begins as a skeptic, but we see his own identity subtly erased as he falls increasingly under Maggie’s spell (and you can see why —Marling is extraordinary, slightly and deliberately off-kilter with the rest of the film around her). It doesn’t entirely satisfy as a whole: at less than ninety minutes, it’s too lean to substantively dig into everything that it has on its mind. In fact, the film was meant to be the first of a trilogy, marking it one of the first Sundance films to fall victim to franchise syndrome. But it’s still a hypnotic, beautifully executed piece of world-building, and we’re very excited to see what Marling and Batmanglij come up with for their new Netflix series next year.
“Race with the Devil” (1975)
“When You Race With The Devil, You Better Be Faster Than Hell!” screamed the tagline for Jack Starrett‘s oddball chase movie/horror mashup that became a modest hit before disappearing forever, except for the makers of 2011’s “Drive Angry” with Nic Cage, who repurposed a great deal of its plot. It’s a film destined for further reevaluation for its cherishable mid-70s cast if nothing else —7 years before playing a cult leader in “Split Image,” Peter Fonda portrays a man on the run from a cult here (‘Race’ was pretty much an attempt to replicate the surprise success of the previous year’s Fonda-in-a-stock-car chase film “Dirty Mary Crazy Larry“). On vacation, he and his friend played by Warren Oates stumble across a satanic ritual sacrifice and flee the pursuing cult across the Texas backwoods with their hysterical liabilities of wives (played by Lara Parker and “M.A.S.H“‘s Loretta Swit). It’s all pretty loosely cobbled together: the smaller characters like the monumentally unhelpful sheriff’s department and the gurning, twangy-voiced locals are all straight out of central casting, and each scene plays like a rip-off of something else rather than part of a cohesive whole, but even with stereotypes and cliches abounding, it’s a blast. Fonda gets to ride a motorbike again, plus the couples’ RV proves remarkably resilient during the many excellent “Duel“-like chase sequences, building to a batshit highway finale that’s actually a terrific smash-’em-up of vehicular mayhem before an abrupt and perfectly divisive ending.
“Martha Marcy May Marlene” (2011)
Doing a better job than maybe any other film here with respect to putting the viewer inside the crumbling mind of a cult escapee struggling to come to grips with the formlessness and chaos of the world outside the group, this startlingly austere paranoia drama was not solely the breakout vehicle for director Sean Durkin and for Elizabeth Olsen. It also showed an entirely new side to the brilliant John Hawkes, who spins his usual characterful casting as a sad sack loser entirely on its head to become one of the most memorably chilling yet believably charismatic cult leaders of the many on this list. Dealing in itchy unease, tonal ambiguity and hopping around in time in a deliberately disorienting manner, the real crux of the film is identity confusion, evoked brilliantly by the willfully confusing title, and rarely has the push-pull attraction-repulsion of resigning all responsibility for yourself to the point of complete self-erasure been so empathetically summoned. Also featuring less showy but tremendously solid performances from Sarah Paulson and Hugh Dancy as Martha’s sister and brother-in-law who become increasingly disturbed by the troubled, secretive Martha’s behavior, “Martha Marcy May Marlene” is a brilliantly evocative, insightful and economical story told with the kind of confidence and adeptness with ambiguity that belies the director’s neophyte status —it feels nothing like a first film. For all this and more it earned its spot on our 50 Best Films of the Decade list.
“The Devils” (1971)
Cults are often a touchy subject (just ask anyone who’s been tweeting about Scientology documentary “Going Clear”), but only “The Devils” can lay claim of the films on this list to genuinely being one of the most controversial films ever made, thanks to its mix of explicit sex and violence and religious imagery. Directed by the ever-provocative Ken Russell (based loosely on Aldous Huxley’s “The Devils Of Loudon,” itself based on real events, as an opening legend reminds us), it’s a period piece set in France in the 1600s, focusing on Father Grandier (an astonishing Oliver Reed), who holds sway over the people of Loudon with his fierce charisma and fiercer sexuality. But it’s the latter that proves his undoing when after he secretly marries Madeleine (Gemma Jones), hunchbacked nun Sister Jeanne (Vanessa Redgrave) in a fit of lustful jealous accuses him of demonically possessing her and the other nuns. Bringing a sort of psychedelic rock swagger to 17th Century France, Russell’s wildly overblown, deliberately hysterical tale (featuring all-time pantheon sets by Derek Jarman) was heavily censored in both the U.S. and the UK thanks to the omnipresent nudity and sexualized religious imagery: the uncut version was only screened for the first time in public a decade ago and still has difficulty being released in some territories. But with the controversy mostly behind us, it remains a wildly watchable and enormously operatic portrait of religious hysteria, obsessive sexuality and the power of personality, full of unforgettable imagery.
Possibly the peak of the so-called New French Extremity movement that pushed gore and violence to new heights in the ’00s, “Martyrs” is one of the most unrelentingly unpleasant and bleak horror pics in recent memory. Yet unlike some of its near-contemporaries, the film has something to say beyond ‘isn’t this horrible?’ Written and directed by Pascal Laugier (whose subsequent career has sadly only led to the deeply silly Jessica Biel vehicle “The Tall Man”), the picture opens with young Lucie escaping from an abbatoir where she’s been physically abused. She grows up (into actress Mylene Jampanoi) only to massacre a family apparently under the influence of a terrifying, scarred woman that only she can see. Her best friend Anna (Morjana Alaoui) soon discovers that Lucie was the victim of a mysterious cult led by Mademoiselle (Catherine Begin), who hopes to find the secret of life after death by torturing a series of ‘martyrs’ that will gain insight into a world beyond in their suffering. It’s truly grim, stomach-churning stuff (not least when Lucie falls victim and is flayed alive by the group), and definitely comes close to being misery- as well as torture- porn. But once the central conceit is revealed, the bloodlust is justified, at least to some degree —not only through the presentation of a fascinating and vaguely original hook, but also by suggesting meta elements: we are ‘witnesses,’ as the film’s closing text suggests, and a love of horror and violence is part of our way of contemplating our own mortality.
“Ticket to Heaven” (1981)
A surprisingly effective drama that believably traces one casually
atheist, skeptical young man’s devolution into a mantra-spouting robot,
and the efforts his friends and family go to (at the risk of
imprisonment under kidnapping laws) to deprogram him, Ralph L Thomas‘ “Ticket to Heaven” is a realistic, unsensational look at the lure of cultism. Featuring impressive early turns from a pre-“Porky’s” and “Police Academy” Kim Cattrall as a perkily zombified member, and familiar TV presences Saul Rubinek as the stalwart best friend and Meg Foster as the cult’s cold-eyed de facto leader, the film centers on Nick Mancuso‘s
David, a recently jilted cynic who falls prey to the group’s relentless
positive reinforcement, all in service of a shady businessman known as
“The Father.” Mancuso brings a hunky muscularity that makes him seem like the least likely person to fall victim to this
dangerous con —if it could happen to him, it could happen to anyone. A companion piece to the more
ambivalent “Split Image” that came the following year, “Ticket to Heaven” really becomes a touching story of friendship as ex-lovers,
parents and friends unite to pluck David from the cult’s grasp and
return him to himself via some tough-love deprogramming. It’s a rather sentimental conclusion, but “Ticket to Heaven” earns it,
non-judgmentally suggesting that the unselfish “love” that a religious
cult might offer is in fact all around us in our ordinary lives.
“The Seventh Victim” (1943)
In case one thinks the cinematic fascination with cults was came to pass in the 1970s, this 1943 noir thriller from director Mark Robson (who also made Humphrey Bogart vehicle “The Harder They Fall,” “Peyton Place,” “Inn of the Sixth Happiness” and “Earthquake“) suggests otherwise. In fact, ‘Victim’ most bears the marks of producer Val Lewton, the man also behind the famous trio of Jacques Tourneur schlock horrors “Cat People,” “I Walked with a Zombie” and “The Leopard Man.” The latter starred Jean Brooks, who returns here as Jacqueline, the missing older sister of plucky innocent Mary (‘Streetcar‘ and “Planet of the Apes” actress Kim Hunter in her screen debut), who stumbles across a Greenwich Village Satanist cult from whose clutches Jacqueline’s been trying to escape. As much a melodrama as it is a noir as it is a horror film (Mary falls for Jacqueline’s “secret husband” but both are too decent to act on it) the film has too many characters —a thwarted poet suitor, a doomed PI, a raft of shady folk who may or may not be Satan worshippers and Jacqueline’s overbearing psychiatrist— but which contribute to the lunatic energy that powers the second half of the film. The troubled Jacqueline reappears; side characters randomly display a morbid death wish; there’s a shower scene that prefigures “Psycho“; and a Code-unfriendly shock ending that, if you unpack it carefully, seems to suggest rather transgressively that at times death might be the better option. Yes, it’s pretty great.
“The Wicker Man” (1973)
We mostly tried to avoid the obvious titles for this feature. But! In terms of both the cult within it and the cult it has since spawned, we just can’t ignore “The Wicker Man,” no matter how often we’ve written about it before (most recently calling out its ace creepy/folksy sing-song soundtrack in our Greatest Horror Scores of All Time). Robin Hardy‘s film really gets to the heart of what is so uncanny about the cult experience: the arcane ritual, the secrecy and the unspoken collusion between a whole community of people that can warp an outsider’s sense of everything they formerly believed. Edward Woodward‘s stiff sergeant thinks he’s come to an island to rescue a missing girl, but until that shatteringly insane finale, he’s unaware that he was being lured there. He finds his starchily Christian worldview progressively dismantled, first by challenges to his sense of decorum (the sight of the young people cavorting naked does not “refresh” him) then by sexual provocation, and finally by frustration at the mischievous stonewalling of the locals of this idyllic island. Anthony Shaffer‘s brilliant screenplay is a great example of world-building and a chilling portrayal of the truism that madness is simply being in a minority of one. We love this film so much that it inspired its own mini-feature to celebrate its 40th anniversary —may it continue to creep the living shit out of us for the next four decades.
“Kill List” (2011)
On its surface, Ben Wheatley’s breakthrough nerve-jangling, ever-shifting horror/crime hybrid “Kill List” doesn’t appear to be about cults. Initially it seems to be a British suburban riff on the post-Tarantino hitman genre, as ex-military types Jay (Neil Maskell) and Gal (Michael Smiley) hang out with their partners as they prepare to take on a new client. But once Gal’s girlfriend Fiona (Emmy Fryer) carves a strange symbol into the back of a mirror, you realize that something is going on under the surface, with our two anti-heroes clearly the puppets of some unseen force. It’s only at the film’s “Wicker Man“-reminiscent, gut-punch conclusion in, around and underneath a mansion house in the country, that it becomes clear —or “clearer,” at least as the gritty drama elements of the earlier parts of the film give way to all-out ritualistic horror. From how the hitmen’s targets thank Jay before they’re killed (a gesture that’s somehow more terrifying than when one of them has his head caved in with a hammer), to the dawning realization of the part they’re playing as sacrifices in a much bigger game, to the truly devastating finale involving a knife fight with a hunchback, Wheatley’s film seems perfectly attuned to the horror of closed secret societies and the rot that can flourish within hermetically sealed communities (making him the perfect choice to adapt JG Ballard‘s “High Rise”). And yet he preserves mystery here, never providing the whys but letting the audience squirm as we watch the hows unfold —how they insidiously worm their way into Jay’s life and how they lead him on a most macabre dance.
“Split Image” (1982)
If you’re looking for a fascinating cult-based double bill and have a fondness for early ’80s styling, pair this film with the previous year’s “Ticket to Heaven,”—it even boasts a superior ’80s-tastic cast with “Caddyshack“‘s Michael O’Keeffe as all-American star athlete Danny, Brian Dennehy as his truculent father, James Woods as a manic, sleazy huckster deprogrammer, Peter Fonda as the charismatic cult leader and Karen Allen as the fellow member who first lures Danny in the cult. But while a lot of the details are similar (both films feature a flower-selling scam conducted out of the back of a van, female cult members losing their periods, and confessions to a history of promiscuity as part of their reason for joining), “‘Split Image’ is in fact the stronger film, as the ethical blacks and whites are grayed up considerably. Wood’s deprogrammer is explicitly as much of a charlatan as Fonda’s serene (but ultimately venal) leader, and the psychological torture visited on Danny in the name of saving him from a cult that for all its dubious activities did not itself seem hugely harmful to its members borders on outright cruel. In fact, in problematizing the deprogramming process —not just in terms of the legality, efficiency or ethics of its methods, but in the very moral basis for its existence at all— “Split Image” becomes a surprisingly thoughtful, well-balanced film that ultimately suggests that undue influence of any stripe, be it parental, societal, religious or peer-based, is its own kind of evil.
“Holy Smoke!” (1999)
An obvious comparison point to “Faults” and its tale of cult deprogramming is 1999’s “Holy Smoke,” one of the more bafflingly undervalued films in the career of New Zealand auteur Jane Campion. Co-written with her sister Anna, the picture stars Kate Winslet (in the first role she took after the enormous success of “Titanic”) as Ruth, a young Australian woman who’s fallen under the influence of a guru in India and has now changed her name to “Nazni.” In an attempt to win their daughter back, her parents (Julie Hamilton and Tim Robertson) fake a family illness to lure her home and then put her in the hands of P.J. (Harvey Keitel, reuniting with his “The Piano” director), an ‘exit counselor’ who specializes in deprogramming. He has some initial success but soon finds that she may be a tougher nut to crack than most, in part because he’s becoming increasingly infatuated with her… Critics were seemingly surprised that the film wasn’t a straight-faced costume drama like Campion’s previous pictures “The Piano” and “Portrait Of A Lady.” It’s undeniably odd and original, mixing very Australian comedy with the kind of no-quarter-given battle-of-the-sexes erotic drama that’s more traditionally associated with the director. The latter element’s more successful than the former, thanks to great performances from the two leads, but it’s the curious but confident mix of tones and influences that over fifteen years on makes it one of Campion’s most beguiling works. She’d return to the subject of cults, or at least communes, in a very different way with her stellar TV show “Top Of The Lake,” but “Holy Smoke!” is certainly her defining word on the subject.
“The Sacrament” (2013)
Given the enduring popularity of both cults and found-footage faux-documentaries among genre filmmakers, it was inevitable that the two would come together at some point, as they did with Ti West’s “The Sacrament.” It’s not terribly effective as a horror film, but manages an in-the-moment immediacy that comes closer than most to capturing the mentality of a cult and the violence that it can unleash. Billed as a VICE documentary, it sees reporter Sam (A.J. Bowen) and cameraman Jake (Joe Swanberg) accompany photographer Patrick (Kentucker Audley) on a trip to the mysterious, remote commune where his recovering addict sister (Amy Seimetz) has been living. After a rough start, they’re greeted warmly by the group and their leader Father (Gene Jones), but it soon becomes apparent that things are less idyllic than they might initially appear. Perhaps it’s West’s horror heritage, but there’s a slight sense of being underwhelmed at the way he film plays out —i.e. exactly as you might imagine, just without Lovecraftian hell beasties or pagan rituals. Instead the filmmaker hews close to his inspiration (namely Jim Jones and the Heaven’s Gate group —some accused the film of exploitation and tastelessness, which seems misplaced), and the violence, when it comes is fast, brutal and unglorified. The film’s at its best in its early stages: despite the (semi-deliberate?) obnoxiousness of Bowen and Swanberg’s leads, it’s fascinating to see Father’s cult outlined in the cinema verite manner, building a world and mythology in an unhurried and authentic way. But what’s left when the dust clears is the mighty performance by character actor Jones (“No Country For Old Men”) as the monstrously gross yet forcefully charismatic figure who has an entire community eating out of his hand.
Honorable Mentions: In addition to the bigger films mentioned in the intro, there are a few that didn’t make the cut since we didn’t have time and/or wanted to stay with an occult-friendly 13 entries, and some simply failed to make the grade like the dated “Children of the Corn,” Kevin Smith‘s “Red State,” and last year’s awful “Holy Ghost People.”
Then there were a few titles that weren’t perhaps as strictly focussed on cultism or where the cults were a little more nebulous than those above, such as in Bill Paxton‘s underrated “Frailty” in which a single family is ruined by the father’s “visions,” similar to Jim Mickle‘s remake of “We Are What We Are” in which cannibalism is associated with the semi-religious mystical beliefs handed down through generations of this one clan. The muddled “religion” of “Don’t Deliver Us From Evil,” inspired by the same case that led to “Heavenly Creatures,” has just two adherents, making it more a pact than a cult per se. And “The Blood on Satan’s Claw” is a good earlier example, but we covered that in this “Wicker Man”-related feature along with “Witchfinder General.” Lastly, Burt Lancaster’s powerhouse turn as “Elmer Gantry” is amazing, but the film is less about a cult than about evangelism and charlatanism.
And while we’ve stayed away from them here, you could populate another whole list with documentaries on the subject, such as “The Institute,” “The Source Family,” “The Cult at the End of the World,” “God Willing,” “Jonestown,” “American Jesus,” “Holy Ghost People” (doc version), Alex Gibney’s recent Scientology doc “Going Clear” (yes, outraged Scientology defender from our comments, we are classing it as a “cult”) and “Jesus Camp.“
As for television: 2002’s “Savage Messiah” is concerned with cults, but the 1976 TV series of Vincent Bugliosi‘s account of the Manson Family “Helter Skelter” probably takes the ribbon for prurient real-life fascination and is certainly a lot better than the 2004 Jeremy Davies-starring version. And most recently and most delightfully, Tina Fey‘s Netflix show “The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” deals with a young woman’s reintegration into society following a fifteen-year stint in a bunker as part of a doomsday cult. Though we slightly suspect Fey et al of brainwashing us with that ludicrously earworm title song —females are strong as hell, yo.
Any others we should be aware of? Any here you’re divinely inspired to check out? Sing out in the comments and we’ll double your ration of mung beans as reward.
–Jessica Kiang & Oli Lyttelton