Cults are scary! Even the word “cult” has nefarious connotation, eluding not only to secrecy, but ritualistic violence and brainwashing. The Mason Family made the existence of cults utterly terrifying in the 1960’s, a sentiment that continued through the 1970’s. The paranoid “Satanic Panic” of the 1980’s and 1990’s had folks suspecting their neighbors of religious sado-sexual atrocities.
Even though dangerous satanic cults have been proven almost nonexistent, irrational fears associated with them endure. It’s the idea that someone who seems normal and intelligent may actually be a master manipulator harboring sinister intentions. While it’s natural to shun fringe groups we don’t understand, thoughts of secret sects planning to bring down society at large are hard to shake; xenophobia and terrorism anxieties have given them a perceived resurgence over the past decade-plus, culminating in the term “Doomsday Cults”.
The massacre at Jonestown cast a permanent shadow over cults, and horror movie practitioners have been keen to explore and exasperate this darkness ever since. Whether justified or irrational, fear of cults persists. Below are 10 examples of 21st Century horror movies that tap into that palpable dread. Beware those who claim to have all the answers!
The Veil (2016)
The lone survivor of a mass suicide (Lily Rabe) returns to the scene of the crime looking for answers. She’s accompanied by a documentarian (Jessica Alba) with her own connection to the tragedy. Both end up wishing they’d stayed home! The Veil adds a supernatural element to standard cult tropes, as bodily possession becomes de facto reincarnation. The merging of straight forward cinematic storytelling with elements of found footage works well, as decaying videotapes and film reels offer a terrifying window into past events.
Sound of My Voice (2011)
“Somewhere in the Valley, there is a woman living in a basement. She’s actually amassing followers. These people believe that she will actually lead them to salvation, or whatever. And yes, she’s dangerous.” A duo of investigative journalists infiltrate a cult led by charismatic Maggie (Brit Marling), a woman who claims to be from the future. She’s convinced her followers that an extinction level event is on the horizon and offers them unique insights on survival—as long as they pledge absolute loyalty. This one will leave you pleasantly perplexed long after the film’s mind-boggling conclusion. Excellent film!
A couple of EMT’s responding to a call are kidnapped by a militant, heavily armed doomsday cult (The Quanta Group) led by an intimidating figure known as “The Teacher” (Daniel Benzali). The Believers offers several innovations to the cult subgenre of horror. First, the group is comprised of scientists, mathematicians, and philosophers—hardly stereotypical “followers” prone to easy indoctrination. Also, while their methods are violent, their stated goal is actually saving the world from an impending Armageddon, not destroying it. The Believers will leave you guessing right up to the end.
The Sacrament (2013)
Produced by Eli Roth, directed by Ti West, and featuring indie heavyweight A.J. Bowen, The Sacrament is a top-notch horror experience. A found-footage movie loosely based on Jim Jones and the massacre at Jonestown, we follow a pair of intrepid journalists to South America to investigate claims of coercion at an isolated compound. Gene Jones (hopefully no relation to Jim—although the resemblance is uncanny!) is brilliant as the drug-addled megalomaniac known only as “Father”, a man who will do anything to maintain the iron grasp he maintains over his congregants.
Kill List (2011)
Ben Wheatley is a filmmaker of incredible scope and Kill List, his gangster-mumble-core-bloodbath, is proof in spades, topping more than just a few “Best Horror of 2012” lists. Kill List feels like a mash-up of A Serbian Film and The Wicker Man with a splash of Eyes Wide Shut; it’s unusually intense and definitely not for the squeamish. The film excels as both a horror movie and a case study in the devastating impact of post-traumatic stress on individuals and families.
End of the Line (2007)
Tragically under-known and underrated, this Canadian creeper is an awesome, well-paced cult horror and creature feature wrapped into one. End of the Line pits a rag-tag crew of strangers against a stab-happy doomsday cult in an underground, labyrinthine subway system—surrounded by all manner of Minotaur. But even as demons rear their ugly faces and news footage from above seems to confirm the worst, characters and viewers will continue asking: “Is this really happening?”
Jug Face (2013)
Jug Face is a twisted little indie about an isolated backwoods community that worships a muddy hole in the ground. Lauren Ahley Carter plays a pregnant teen who finds her head on the chopping block when her face appears on a clay jug, a sign that deems her the Pit’s next sacrifice. The script drips with muted black-humor and reoccurring supernatural tangents, creating an experience both engrossing and bone-chilling. There are some truly uncomfortable moments to endure in this dark allegory that plays out like a shocking coming of age story. “The Pit wants what it wants.”
Holy Ghost People (2013)
The fact that horror practitioners The Butcher Brother dropped their bloody moniker and released Holy Ghost People under their real names (Mitchell Altieri and Phil Flores) proves that they wanted to be taken seriously. This tale of Appalachian snake handlers is legit, a satisfying chiller with real drama and a more conventional appeal than the duos previous offerings. But the Brothers remember who butters their toast, delivering a wicked finale with some familiar stylistics that fans will surely recognize. Violence is juxtaposed against a brilliant rendition of a song you haven’t heard since the last time you watched The Lost Boys.
Pascal Laugier’s opus of agony is primarily categorized as “revenge horror”, but the second half of the film revolves around a theological torture cult obsessed with the afterlife. Not only is Martyrs a disturbing exploration of secret societies, it’s perhaps the best example of “New French Extremity” ever produced; it should be considered a must-see for all horror aficionados. You might love it or hate it, but you’ll never forget it. Avoid the American remake at all costs!
Starry Eyes (2014)
Lauded as one of the best horror movies of 2014, Starry Eyes overflows with arthouse sensibilities, sure to please fans of David Lynch and surrealist storytelling. Thematically, it’s about losing yourself (essentially selling your soul) in order to achieve lofty ambitions. Aspiring actress Sarah (Alex Essoe) discovers that success in Hollywood requires a dreadful submission to cultish gatekeepers. Friends fear they may lose her forever as Sarah’s indoctrination proves both ghastly and completely transformative. Be careful what you wish for!
Whether fear of cults is a modern anxiety or a deeper extension of mankind’s innate distrust towards the “other” is debatable. What can’t be denied, however, is that cults make for some top-notch nightmare fuel in the hands of skilled filmmakers. So lose the track suit, drop those snakes, and whatever you do: Don’t drink the Kool Aid!
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