Belief may be a comfort and help to many people, but it comes laced with the darkest possibilities, possibilities that all too often spill over into very real violence and oppression all around the world. Repression, fanaticism, willful ignorance, an inclination toward authoritarianism, and an intolerance to any difference of opinion characterize many belief systems, religious or not. And these elements are, of course, excellent fodder for horror stories. When horror deals with the dangers of faith, it often focuses on small and deranged cults. Perhaps this comes out of a squeamishness about taking large religious groups on directly, a fear proven reasonable by the threats against artists like Salman Rushdie and Andres Serrano. But it may also be because smaller groups of believers can more quickly come to horrifying action than those constrained by the orthodoxies of massive movements. And, of course, working with a fictitious cult means writers can inject even stranger and more dangerous beliefs into their narratives.
Cults feature in the works of several early horror authors, particularly those of Arthur Machen, Algernon Blackwood, and H. P. Lovecraft. They were to make an even more widespread appearance in Rosemary’s Baby, a book and movie that helped the horror genre gel into a marketing category. In film, genre-fans are likely to think of the Christopher Lee movie The Wicker Man (let us never speak of the blasphemous remake) as well as the far more recent Ari Aster folk horror movie Midsommar, a gorgeous and disturbing entry in this sub-genre that I don’t cover simply because most of you have already heard of it.
I have, for this list, tried centering some less well-known horror movies about cults, and I’ve tried to avoid including any films in which the involvement of a cult is a big surprise/plot twist at the end. A list that ignored that spoiler territory would include movies I’ve covered elsewhere. Instead, the following movies tend to give us their strange believers in vivid and often talkative forms up front. And, of course, almost every one of these movies includes a twisted cult leader (or two), mini-Hitlers, quasi-bin Ladens, and proto-Torquemadas with the will and (sometimes) the supernatural powers necessary to seduce and dominate their followers. So, come and draw near these new beliefs and their adherents. Maybe you’ll find illumination, maybe destruction, but most certainly you will find terror.
Lord of Illusions (1995)
One of only three movies Clive Barker has directed, Lord of Illusions has got, in my opinion, an unfairly bad rap. Much as with Nightbreed, this movie suffered from studio interference as well as an audience not yet primed for the sort of wide-ranging and original genre-mixing it represents. The story’s protagonist is the occult detective Harry D’Amour, played by Quantum Leap‘s Scott Bakula.
The film begins in a compound in the desert, where a Charles Manson-like cult leader named Nix holds several dozen followers under his sway. Unlike Manson, Nix wields actual magic and taught his protege Philip Swann some of his powers before Swann turned on him, killing him with occult tools. Thirteen years later, Swann has become a world-renowned magician, fooling his audiences into thinking his actual sorcery is just a matter of sleight-of-hand. After a former member of the Nix cult is murdered, Swann’s young wife hires D’Amour to protect her husband. Slowly, the detective will piece together this history, just as the remnants of the cult gather to perform a dangerous ritual.
D’Amour is a fascinating character, a kinder and not so cynical cousin of John Constantine, and I think it’s a shame that Bacula wasn’t able to continue his adventures in other films. The cult is a creepy one, completely enslaved to their god-like leader and obsessed with continuing his shadowy work. Nix is the real star of the show, a man with all the hubris and egotism of a cult leader, but with nightmarish abilities Manson, Jim Jones, Shoko Asahara, and other deranged wannabe Messiahs could only dream of. I’d so watch a prequel movie that told his story. This is a fun movie in particular for those who enjoy their horror with a strong mystery element.
Suicide Club/Suicide Circle (2001)
I suppose I should preface this one with a trigger warning about self-harm and suicide, but… you read the title of the movie, right? In this gory, often opaque film, a wave of inexplicable suicides spreads throughout Japan, seemingly starting with 54 schoolgirls simultaneously jumping in front of a train. The victims themselves seem to have little in common and most seem in good spirits right before their deaths. As more and more people (primarily teenagers) fall victim to this strange plague, a couple detectives try piecing together the puzzle, an investigation that will soon draw them into the darkest recesses of the Internet as well as the world of mass entertainment.
This movie is a strange beast, veering between gory deaths, mystery elements, and a weird philosophy emanating from the unlikeliest source. The movie doesn’t sew everything up in the end, and you will be left with plenty of questions, but its open-endedness just adds to the effect. The cult behind the mayhem is probably the most mysterious on this list and the road that leads our investigators to them may leave you even more suspicious of the effects and meanings behind many otherwise banal aspects of modern culture. And yeah, lots and lots of suicide in this one, so avoid it if that sort of material is especially disturbing for you.
The Haunting of Rebecca Verlaine/Garden of Love (2008)
This German movie is, certainly at its beginning and climax, a gorefest, splattery and broadly-acted, but by its end it had won me over. Don’t expect stellar acting, don’t expect brilliant dialogue, but if you’re open to it, it may surprise you with its strange twists, not to mention those graphic and unrelenting special effects. It also makes for a unique take on the cult story, one I can’t recall any other horror movie even attempting.
Several decades ago, a hippie compound run by an eccentric folk musician was invaded by mysterious killers in clown masks. Years after the still-unsolved massacre, young Rebecca Verlaine begins having hallucinations of bloodied figures on her television. What is her connection to these old murders, and what do these hideous creatures want of her? Again, this is splatterpunk territory, and if you’re not okay with seeing bodies mutilated, torn apart, and simply burst open, you’ll want to skip this one, but I was by the end quite entertained and happy to have stumbled across it. And the cult at its center is more sympathetic than most of those on this list.
Silent Hill (2006)
I would say that Silent Hill is hands-down the best cinematic adaptation of a series of videogames, but even that praise would give the movie short shrift. Co-written by one of the writers of Pulp Fiction, it is a far better movie than it could have been and stands up under multiple viewings. The games are all set in the misty West Virginia town of Silent Hill and usually involve player-characters discovering the interaction of their worst secrets with a bizarre metaphysical anomaly that has overcome this little village.
In the movie, Rose De Silva and her husband find their adopted daughter Sharon is being plagued by bouts of sleepwalking and night terrors, all connected to dreams she is having of Silent Hill, a town they’ve never even heard of. Desperate to help Sharon, Rose drives her to the town. Silent Hill seems abandoned and coated by a thick layer of fog, and Rose soon disappears, leaving her mother wandering through the place in a panic. Things go from bad to worse when the mist is replaced by inky darkness, and Rose is plunged into a nightmare world filled with monsters. There are human beings here too, members of an extreme sect known as the Brethren, and while they seem just as trapped as Rose is, they may bear some responsibility for the horrors surrounding them.
The monsters and their dimension are the real stars of this show, hideous and strange and loaded with meanings the film often only gestures at. The Brethren, however, are a memorable group of fanatics, and although there is a greater power behind these mysteries, they stand out as a horrific example of faith run amuck.
End of the Line (2007)
Most movies about cults (and most of those on this list) are set in remote landscapes, rural enclaves where creepy fanatics can control the actions of their members and anyone unlucky enough to stumble across them. It’s a great conceit, one that obviously lends itself to tension-building and the isolation of our protagonists, but in a world of mass communication and widely distributed conspiracy theories like QAnon, this model may be a little old fashioned. You are probably more likely to meet a fanatic at your grocery store than some town in the woods. Cults have to work differently in big cities than in their own compounds, hiding their beliefs and purposes at least until they’re ready to unleash the sort of violence seen, for instance, in the Aum Shinrikyo subway attacks of 1995.
The latter were clearly influential on this Canadian thriller, which is mostly set in subway tunnels. Karen, a young psychiatric nurse, is on her way home in a subway train when several members of an extremist Christian cult seem to simultaneously go insane, forcing the other passengers to fight for their lives. But there may be something else down here in the darkness with them… This is a fast-paced B-movie, one buttressed by creepy special effects as well as the uncomfortable idea that, a few plot elements aside, faith-driven chaos such as this is all too plausible.
The Lords of Salem (2012)
Rob Zombie’s movies are a matter of hot contention in the world of horror movies. I can almost hear some of you groaning to see his name come up. And this movie may be the most contentious of them all, as it foregoes the relatively “simple” pleasures of House of 1000 Corpses and his Halloween reboots in favor of a slow-burn seventies aesthetic, one filled with lingering shots and opaque plot elements. But I think it’s my favorite of his, and it presents a certain cinematically familiar evil cult aim in a visually pleasing and hallucinatory way.
Heidi is a recovering drug addict and DJ at a rock station in Salem, Massachusetts who gets a strange black record in the mail one day from a band calling themselves “The Lords.” Playing the record triggers weird visions in her as well as an urge to start using again. In some of her radio listeners, though, it begins a darker transformation. It all has something to do with a savage witch-cult once stomped out by brutal Puritans. I love that element of this film, that there are no obviously good and evil sides to the story, aside perhaps from Heidi and her friends.
The witches are far more disturbing than they are usually portrayed in horror movies, grotesque and manic and gleefully cruel. The real attraction, though, is the measured pace at which the movie moves, as well as the phantasmagoric visions Heidi has. A far cry from Zombie’s other psycho-killer thrillers, this is closer to Kubrick and Argento territory and it makes me wish he’d work in this vein more often.
Last Shift (2014)
When Jessica Loren, a rookie cop, is assigned to take the last shift at an old police station before it is permanently closed, she expects a quiet if eerie evening. Instead, she soon finds a homeless man running loose in the building and starts getting phone calls about a murderous cult holding people captive. As the evening goes on, Jessica (and the viewer) begins doubting her sanity. Is she losing her mind? Or is something much worse happening? Last Shift has some excellent scares, relying on slow and sustained eeriness as well as sudden, bloody effects, and Juliana Harkavy’s performance as Jessica anchors the film, making us worry for her as well as doubt her sanity in equal measures. Saying much more would spoil the secrets of this solid little film.
Faults is easily the funniest movie on this list, with a protagonist so hapless and pathetic that you come to pity him his involvement with a situation spinning wildly out of control. It’s also the only movie I know of that tackles the process of “deprogramming,” an only semi-legal intervention in which a member of a cult is more or less kidnapped and put through a psychological ordeal meant to clean their head of the doctrines they’ve been fed.
Once a respected expert on cults and brainwashing, Ansel Roth is now a has-been, taking on poorly paid gigs and engaging in minor theft. At his latest speaking engagement, he’s even punched out by a man angry for Roth’s involvement in a de-programming that went disastrously wrong. Despite this performance, a desperate couple approaches him and asks that he deprogram their daughter, Claire, who has gotten involved with a mysterious group known as “Faults.” When Roth agrees to the intervention, he holes himself up in a hotel room with the young woman, determined to empty her mind of the nonsense she’s been taught. Claire, though, is extraordinarily resistant to his techniques, and soon Roth finds his own beliefs being challenged in increasingly upsetting ways.
Roth is played by Leland Orser, one of those character actors you’ve likely seen in several roles (most notably in Se7en) without having caught his name. Here, he and Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Claire) shine, and the film takes weird turns you might not expect. The cult Faults lurks in the background, but as you start to see what’s happening, its invisible presence looms larger and larger until the film reaches its surprising climax. An excellent dark comedy/thriller/sleeper horror movie that should be seen by more people.
The Endless (2017)
Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead
Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead are carving out for themselves a fascinating niche at the corner of science fiction, horror, and dramedy with their films Resolution, Spring, Synchronic, and The Endless, most of which belong to the same narrative universe. The way they blend genres and move between genres is impressive and has an emotional resonance often missing from genre pieces.
In The Endless, two brothers, Justin and Aaron Smith (played by the directors), once escaped an isolated UFO cult which older brother Justin worried was headed for mass suicide. Years later, they get a videotape from someone in Camp Arcadia, the cult, seeming to beckon them back. The brothers have had a terrible time in the “real world,” and despite some misgivings on Justin’s part, they decide to visit their old companions. At the cult compound, they find no one there seems to have aged a day in the decade since they left. The group seems to be a happy one, playful and full of life, and Aaron in particular starts wondering why he’d ever leave again. But then small anomalies begin piling up and an investigation of the surrounding woods reveals them to be populated by other, quite unhappy souls. Something is coming to Camp Arcadia, and the brothers are faced with strange and disturbing choices.
I love how the cult is treated in this movie. Instead of raving lunatics, these folks are (at least seemingly) decent, gentle people devoted to a bizarre but life-affirming philosophy. Something dark looms above it all, but the believers are given a humanity rarely accorded cult members in a film that manages to be simultaneously funny, dramatic, terrifying, and, in the end, awe-inspiring.
At the extreme opposite of The Endless‘ kind, if secretive cult, lies the Children of the New Dawn, a warped group of former hippies who serve as the villains of Panos Cosmatos’s hallucinatory Mandy. Cosmatos is no stranger to cult fiction, having written and directed the batshit-crazy science-fiction/horror film Beyond the Black Rainbow, which is itself about the remnant of a New Age group now turned into a horrific science experiment. Mandy is likely more palatable to most viewers than Black Rainbow, laying its plot out in a more conventional way, but that doesn’t mean this movie isn’t out to freak you out.
Logger Red Miller (played with simmering intensity by Nicholas Cage) lives with his beautiful and fragile artist girlfriend Mandy in the Shadow Mountains. They have an idyllic life up until the day Mandy is spotted by Jeremiah Sand, the megalomaniacal twit who leads the Children of the New Dawn. Sand decides he must have Mandy, and sets out to kidnap and brainwash her, leading to a series of incredibly unfortunate events that will deform and destroy the lives of almost everyone involved.
Mandy is wild, a visual feast and an assault on the senses. There’s a lot to say about this movie, but I’ll focus on the Children here. What makes them so disturbing is the mixture of absurdity and sociopathy that infects most of the members. Sand is another fascinating wannabe-Messiah, but the film undercuts his preening egomania by showing the pathetic worm hiding beneath at almost every moment. He and his believers are even more terrifying for the fact that they have a foot in a near-paranormal world of deviants and killers, including a gang of Cenobite-like motorcyclists that almost rob the movie from them with their bristling, biomechanical appearances.
If you give this one a chance, you’ll likely laugh, cry, and shudder, sometimes within the space of minutes, but I doubt many viewers will be bored. This one, as well as Beyond the Black Rainbow, has made a believer out of me in Cosmatos’s ability to take film places it has never dreamt of before.
SEE ALSO: Baskin, Martyrs, V/H/S/94, Anything for Jackson, The Cabin in the Woods, Angel Heart, A Cure for Wellness, Dark Waters, The Call of Cthulhu, The Void, The Nameless, Kill List, Night of the Demon, The Ninth Gate, Jennifer’s Body, Santa Sangre, Ready or Not, The Church