The cinematic rendition of cults

Tools    





As I may have mentioned, I love me a good cult film. My favourite take on the subject is a horror/thriller that ideally adds a supernatural slant to the cult narrative. Martha, Marcy, May, Marlene is probably the best “straight-up” cult film to date to me, but where the supernatural is concerned, I think The Endless is pretty great. The Veil (2016) had a huge potential to combine the two, I thought, but something appeared to be missing that could have made it stand out.

I do my best to watch everything that fits the bill when it comes to cult-themed stuff. Recently I watched 1BR (2019). Very “meh”, for sure, but it got me thinking about “cult films” – hence this thread. What with a theology degree and a lifelong fascination with the subject, I would argue that cults hardly ever have a mission or a “purpose”, except when it comes to exercising control over members (let’s set aside for a moment the obvious point that definitions of “cult” vary massively). Infamous historical cults, especially since the ‘70s (Heaven’s Gate, etc), constitute isolated communities with common practices, beliefs and “rituals”, whether or not grounded in spiritualism, and they are all about power.

On to the film medium, at last. Whilst I believe most groups routinely designated as “cults” don’t actually tend to have a purpose or a mission, I think that therein lies the difference between film and real life. To me, to make any fictional narrative compelling and generate suspense, any cult needs to have a clearly defined purpose. There are exceptions – I don’t remember a particular purpose to Martha, Marcy, May, Marlene cult (perhaps because it is just a “woman in trouble” story at its core) – but I would say a philosophy/purpose differentiates a well-grounded cult from a random bunch of “creepy” people used to advance the plot.

When I think of films with good, well-written cults, Rosemary’s Baby comes to mind (the Antichrist baby angle may have grown stale by now, but it’s hard to deny that this is a pretty specific cult mission that is portrayed in a comprehensive manner). The Endless
WARNING: spoilers below
cult is rooted in rebirth and “dying over and over again” and, therefore, as some of the members see it, being immortal. The same broadly applies to The Veil – the cult members believed they would be reborn one day and they were
. Conversely, 1BR, which sparked this thread, seems to completely neglect to explain the cult philosophy, which really annoyed me. Sure, I get that
WARNING: spoilers below
members of the “Community” preferred to remain insulated from the outside world and aimed to create a self-sufficient ecosystem, but that’s more akin to agoraphobia to me and reminiscent of Columbus Circle
. To me, the fact that these people don’t want to leave the house doesn’t make them a cult any more than the Synecdoche, New York actors’ troupe is a cult. Sure, there’s the torture and intimidation and the trying to force her to ‘want’ to be part of the community, but there comes the crux of the issue: I don’t know if that really makes them a cult. I mean,
The Devil Wears Prada protagonist also has to follow a bunch of perhaps bizarre rules, so there’s a similarity there, but we don’t make that into a cult narrative.

Whilst I have acknowledged that the sociological/theological definition of “cult” is a tough nut to crack and is understandably ambiguous, I think when it comes to scriptwriting it is important to actually portray the dynamics of the cult in films dealing with the subject, otherwise, it feels a bit lazy. As such, I thought the Hereditary cult was quite well-written. Sure, there was still the criticism that it’s all very vague, which I agree with, but we are shown in no uncertain terms that King Paimon gives the cult members what they want, including “knowledge of all secret things… honour, wealth and o familiars” plenty as long as they keep up the ritualistic practice. So whatever the shortcomings of the film may be, the cult part is fine by me.

Anyone know of any films where there is actually a coherent, well-grounded, comprehensive philosophy to the cult that we as viewers get to see?



I love Martha Marcy May Marlene. An underrated gem.

Try:

Distance:
https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0278413...ws?ref_=tt_urv

Sound of my Voice:
https://www.imdb.com/title/tt1748207/?ref_=nv_sr_srsg_0

Maybe even Midsommar?
Sound of my Voice is definitely among the better ones. I wouldn’t say Midsommar really counts, I mean, do they even have a philosophy? They have
WARNING: spoilers below
that pseudo-Aryan throw-old-people-off-the-cliff thing
, and they try to procreate to get new members, I guess, but what else is there?

Don’t think I’ve seen Distance, so thanks, will check out.



Sound of my Voice is a good choice. The kind of film that, even if it wasn't spectacular, sorta sticks with you.

The Void has a cult-ish element, even if it's barely explored.

Also, Mandy.
__________________
Check out my podcast: Thief's Monthly Movie Loot!



Sound of my Voice is a good choice. The kind of film that, even if it wasn't spectacular, sorta sticks with you.

The Void has a cult-ish element, even if it's barely explored.

Also, Mandy.
I really thought The Void could have been more about cults if the director wanted to go there. The idea
WARNING: spoilers below
that it’s all ‘true’, which then becomes the surprise/‘gotcha’ element as in The Endless
is pretty good. But they didn’t really take due care to unpack it, which was a shame.

I like Mandy and have seen it a few times, and I guess you’re right. They are a pretty good cult. Not much in a way of grounding, but very picturesque.



I really thought The Void could have been more about cults if the director wanted to go there. The idea
WARNING: spoilers below
that it’s all ‘true’, which then becomes the surprise/‘gotcha’ element as in The Endless
is pretty good. But they didn’t really take due care to unpack it, which was a shame.
I agree. I really like the atmosphere and vibe of the film, though. And the practical effects are great.


A lot of people have mentioned The Endless to me. I'm gonna have to prioritize that one. Seems very much like my jam.



I agree. I really like the atmosphere and vibe of the film, though. And the practical effects are great.


A lot of people have mentioned The Endless to me. I'm gonna have to prioritize that one. Seems very much like my jam.
I really love that film. It’s in my current top three, especially if we’re talking personal preference rather than pure craft. I think you’d like it, so do give it a go.



True Detective S1
The Skulls
The Da Vinci Code
Conan the Barbarian
Dark City
Conan the Barbarian? Seriously? Need to revisit that, I guess.

Looks like I’m finally on to True Detective, huh!



I highly recommend The Invitation from 2015. It's one of the best horror movies of the 2010s if you ask me.
__________________
Last Great Movie Seen
Silent Running (Trumbull, 1972)



I highly recommend The Invitation from 2015. It's one of the best horror movies of the 2010s if you ask me.
It was good, sure. I must have seen it 10+ times. But then again, this isn’t so much about good cult films overall, it’s about cult films that actually have a developed concept/philosophy/belief system beyond a group being a cult. From what I remember, The Invitation climax descended into a brawl, basically, there was no exploration of the cult’s belief system. I would say the technicalities of what they believe are left very vague; dying is ‘liberating and spiritual’, and that’s about it, right?

From that point of view, Sound of My Voice really is a good one.



I think that most films about "cults" approach them as something either mysterious or just downright horrible/bad, which is why I think most scripts tend not to delve into the internal philosophy/beliefs of the cult per se. Maybe that's why it's so hard to find what you're looking for.



I think that most films about "cults" approach them as something either mysterious or just downright horrible/bad, which is why I think most scripts tend not to delve into the internal philosophy/beliefs of the cult per se. Maybe that's why it's so hard to find what you're looking for.
Indeed, that’s the issue. So I’m looking for exceptions.



I don't know if these are exactly what you asked, but at least they have cults.

The Empty Man (2020)
End of the Line (2007)
The Curse of Audrey Earnshaw (2020)
The House of the Devil (2009)
Kill List (2011)
The City of the Dead (1960)
Satan's Slaves (2017)

Also, seconding True Detective season one. And I guess, Conan the Barbarian has enough cult involvement to count as well.
__________________



I don't know if these are exactly what you asked, but at least they have cults.

The Empty Man (2020)
End of the Line (2007)
The Curse of Audrey Earnshaw (2020)
The House of the Devil (2009)
Kill List (2011)
The City of the Dead (1960)
Satan's Slaves (2017

Also, seconding True Detective season one. And I guess, Conan the Barbarian has enough cult involvement to count as well.
I’ll check them out ASAP, you’ve come up with the most so far that I haven’t seen, so thanks!



Netflix had a tv series called The Cult. Maybe you've seen it. It was the first thing to get me interested in cults.
Don't remember if the cult had an interesting philosophy or not. I think it mainly had a charismatic leader.



Reading around a bit... but what about Holy Smoke? Haven't seen it, but it stars Kate Winslet and Harvey Keitel. Not sure what it is about but came up on a search.



Netflix had a tv series called The Cult. Maybe you've seen it. It was the first thing to get me interested in cults.
Don't remember if the cult had an interesting philosophy or not. I think it mainly had a charismatic leader.
There was also that show with Aaron Paul and Hugh Dancy, The Path. I never saw it, but my wife did and said it was... ehhh, ok?



Netflix had a tv series called The Cult. Maybe you've seen it. It was the first thing to get me interested in cults.
Don't remember if the cult had an interesting philosophy or not. I think it mainly had a charismatic leader.
I don’t think I’ve come across that yet. Will have a look. As far as shows are concerned, strangely, I really liked the AHS Cult season, but only because it was so obvious it wasn’t really about a cult - at least not in the sense of this thread.



There was also that show with Aaron Paul and Hugh Dancy, The Path. I never saw it, but my wife did and said it was... ehhh, ok?
Not a glowing endorsement, so might pass on that…