One of the most propulsive horror trends of modern years has been the resurgence of the Creepy Cult. Perhaps I paint with too broad a brush, but a cult, to me, is any group of people united in a single ideology that subverts commonly held morals. Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2017) is as much a cult story as Rosemary’s Baby, except they worship at the altar of racist brain surgery. While each cult’s ideology differs from the next, there’s a terrifying loss of identity that connects all of them, from The Wicker Man (1973 – read our retro review here) to Hereditary (read our review here).
In his implosive, devastating new film, 1BR, David Marmor (Love & Other Unstable States Of Matter 2010) tackles the subject of cults from its most terrifying vantage point: the new, unwilling initiate. The film opens with Sarah (Nicole Brydon Bloom: Law & Order: Special Victims Unit TV series), a young, recent transplant to a new city, who’s exploring a new apartment. To her, it’s a dream come true, but, as we’ve seen time and time again in Rosemary’s Baby (1968 – read our retro review here), The Sentinel (1977 – read our retro review here) and The House of the Devil (2009), the place comes with sinister strings attached.
Sarah carries the entire scope of the film in her eyes and rises to the challenge in every scene. From the early moments, full of Sarah’s hope and camaraderie with her coworker Lisa (Celeste Sully: Second Generation Wayans TV series), to the teeth-rattling levels of unpleasantness the film threatens her with later, she brings her entire soul into each moment. Every closeup ticks and whirs with her internal monologue, hashing out the details of each choice and challenge. Bloom brings to Sarah the involuntary, unfiltered energy of an exposed nerve.
Against this fierce portrayal of self is the film’s antagonists, a group of individuals devoted to a Scientology-meets-NXIVM belief system that decides to welcome Sarah into their midst. What follows is a nerve-shredding exercise in human endurance and the power of influence and circumstances. In further proof of the way everything is everything all the time, I came to 1BR right after watching the Lifetime docuseries, Surviving R. Kelly (2019), and couldn’t help but see a chilling echo of the now-infamous Pied Piper of R&B in the way the cult works to condition Sarah into conformity. Cults, it seems, are not the old, robed, Satanists of yesteryear. They’re the khaki pants and polo shirt outfits of our next-door neighbors. The cult’s rituals aren’t colossal Wicker Men; they’re dinner parties. Their ideology isn’t one rooted in Satan, some cosmic horror or Scandinavian ancient beast.
The cinematography by David Bolen (The Dropbox 2015) creates a clean, almost antiseptic environment with sun-bleached days and stark white interior shots. The inhabitants are photographed with no added menace or monstrous accents…they just look like people. The pervading sense of normality and cleanliness perfectly embody the threat of a cult, the grinning appeal and the indomitable rightness of a group with the answer.
The cultists themselves perform this duality of cheery self-assuredness and shocking amorality with aplomb. Notables include the kindly Miss Stanhope (played with charm and note-perfect repression by Susan Davis: WarGames 1983), Janice (played by one-of-a-kind AHS alumna Naomi Grossman, who brings a physical presence to every role and makes even background work worth watching), and the leader of the apartment-complex cult with the best name for the unassuming-looking leader of a violent new age cult, Jerry (played with authoritative, unshakable powers of persuasion by Taylor Nichols: Jurassic Park III 2001).
For those looking for something a little different in the subgenre, 1BR is a good watch with the novelty and ground-up approach we’ve seen from Daniel Myrick’s Believers (2007) and Pascal Laugier’s Martyrs (2008). It brings the esoteric scares of a secret society or creepy cult to a relatable, frightening, it-could-happen-to-you place that resonates all the deeper. Strong performances and an unhurried visual style all work together to create a harrowing experience we feel as viscerally as anything we’ve personally experienced. And, as the stories of deranged R&B singers, rabid incels, and whatever comes next continue to come to light, the idea of experiencing something like 1BR feels chillingly closer than ever.