If the current popularity of stuff like Hereditary, Netflix’s Wild Wild Country and, now, The Endless teaches us anything, it’s this: sects sell.
Satanic cults have provided staple horror-movie nemeses since at least 1934’s The Black Cat, featuring Boris Karloff as a crazed occultist bent on human sacrifice. But their number really began to multiply on screen in the late 60s and 70s, with the cultural turn towards witchiness and occult themes that characterised the hangover of the hippie era. Two 1968 films, Rosemary’s Baby and The Devil Rides Out, pointed the way.
Meanwhile, back in the real world, things were getting even weirder. Peace, love and the countercultural dream of communal living revealed their nightmare side with the Manson Family murders of 1969. And the communes of California had more horrors in store: the fated millenarian cults Peoples Temple and Heaven’s Gate each swelled their churches with the seekers and strays of the ‘Me’ decade.
Brainwashing, doomsday prophecies, narcissistic leaders – cults provide a heady brew that filmmakers continue to dish up by the ladleful, from The Master (2012) to Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011). Such films probe the limits of club mentality: we all want to belong, but how far would we go?
The Seventh Victim (1943)
Director: Mark Robson
Part of the unsurpassed string of atmospheric horrors made by Val Lewton for RKO during the early 1940s, The Seventh Victim retains a real shock value to this day – though not only because of its scare tactics. Mary (Kim Hunter), a young woman at a Catholic boarding school, is told her older sister, Jacqueline (Jean Brooks), has gone missing and stopped paying the school fees. Unable to continue her schooling, Mary travels to NYC to track her down, eventually encountering a circle of Palladists who have her sister in their influence.
The prototype for all subsequent cult films, from Rosemary’s Baby on, The Seventh Victim boasts plenty of the unnerving shadowplay that makes Lewton’s films so special. But what makes it stand out – certainly in the context of 40s cinema, nevermind a film made in the midst of the war effort – is its doleful, death-haunted quality. The devil worshippers may get away with a light ticking off, but the film’s final suggestion that some souls are simply driven by a death impulse packs a profoundly disturbing punch.
Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
Director: Roman Polanski
Along with the same year’s Night of the Living Dead, Rosemary’s Baby was a resounding wake-up call for horror cinema and its audiences. The terrifying stuff didn’t just take place in some gothic castle or haunted house. It could be out there on the streets too, in the modern day. Hell, your next-door neighbours might even be in league in Beelzebub himself.
Mia Farrow is the nervy New Yorker who begins to believe exactly that in Roman Polanski’s supremely unsettling occult benchmark. Her new neighbours ingratiate their way into her life with good luck charms and insidious friendliness, and before she knows it she’s being sized up as mother material for the son of Satan. Horror cinema at its twitchy, paranoid best, Rosemary’s Baby set a trend for diabolical terror that led to The Exorcist (1973) and The Omen (1976).
The Devil Rides Out (1968)
Director: Terence Fisher
The best horror film Hammer ever made has Christopher Lee as a force for good (for once), battling a sect of satanists led by the dastardly Mocata (Charles Gray). Based on a novel by Dennis Wheatley, The Devil Rides Out is set in 1920s England, where Lee’s Duc de Richleau finds out an old friend has been dabbling with pentagrams and black magic – not to mention the odd spot of goat sacrificing.
Half a century on, there’s still something utterly bone-chilling about moments of the ensuing bout between good and evil. Even the obviously dated quality of the special effects only adds to their spectral spookiness – from the apparition of the goat-devil Baphomet at an orgiastic ritual on Salisbury Plain to the sustained onslaught of terror and temptation visited upon the Duc and his friends as they stand guard within the safety of a magic circle. It’s a key film in what’s been called the Black Aquarius, the occult wave in British culture in the 60s and 70s.
The Wicker Man (1973)
Director: Robin Hardy
The high priest of movies about cults, The Wicker Man sets us down in a Scottish island community where Christianity has been abandoned in favour of paganism, superstition and ancient rituals. A devout Catholic police sergeant (Edward Woodward) arrives from the mainland to search for a missing schoolgirl, but gets no help from the islanders – nor from the sinister local laird, Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee). Meanwhile, there’s next year’s harvest to think about…
It’s difficult to believe that Robin Hardy’s film was dumped into a B-movie slot (accompanying Don’t Look Now) when it was first released, substantially chopped down, in 1973. In the 45 years since then, The Wicker Man has bloomed into a cultural phenomenon – a set text for any discussion of folk horror or the old weird Britain, and a film that’s spawned not just a slew of imitators but (as of 2018) its own Alton Towers rollercoaster.
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)
Director: Steven Spielberg
In the second part of the Indiana Jones saga, cinema’s favourite archaeologist took a break from battling Nazis to find himself up against the deadly Thuggee cult, a real-life brotherhood that robbed and murdered its way through centuries of India’s history, claiming allegiance to Kali, the goddess of destruction.
In an underground temple beneath the opulent splendour of Pankot Palace, Indiana (Harrison Ford) finds the Thuggee zealots conducting ritual human sacrifice in terrifyingly fiery ceremonies. The darkest moment of the franchise sees even our hero proving susceptible to the mania of the cult, brainwashed after drinking the ‘blood of Kali’ and making ready to send Willie Scott (Kate Capshaw) to her end. For more Thuggee fighting, try the Cary Grant adventure Gunga Din (1939) and Hammer’s The Stranglers of Bombay (1959).
Holy Smoke (1999)
Director: Jane Campion
An undervalued entry in the career of Jane Campion, Holy Smoke side-steps the usual sinister treatment of cults on film in favour of something funnier and more ambiguous. Kate Winslet plays Ruth, an Australian woman who has a guru-inspired spiritual awakening while travelling around India, while Harvey Keitel is the professional ‘cult deprogrammer’, P.J., employed by her parents to undo the brainwashing. After conning her into travelling back to Australia, a battle of wits ensues, with the pair locking horns – and soon loins too – in a remote outback home.
Charlie Manson and other infamous cult leaders crop up in a video P.J. shows as part of his exit counselling, but the influence of Ruth’s own guru comes to look somewhat benign next to the controlling love of a man like P.J. The cult movie as feminist parable, Holy Smoke memorably climaxes with Keitel in a red dress, hobbling across the desert.
Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple (2006)
Director: Stanley Nelson
The sub-strand of documentaries about real-life cults offers plenty of proof for the old cliché about truth being stranger than fiction. A Tribeca festival award-winner, Stanley Nelson’s Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple charts the rise of charismatic cult leader Jim Jones, who established a religious community in California and later the Guyana jungle before leading 900 of his followers in a mass suicide-murder in 1978.
Jones preached a strange brew of Christianity and communism, operating a church that was notable for its racial inclusivity and social progressiveness. But Nelson’s film explores how easily utopian ideals can warp into something more dangerous. Survivors from Jonestown tell the story, aided by a wealth of archive footage from the encampments and disturbing audio extracts from the notorious ‘death tape’, recorded as Jones compelled his community to drink the spiked Kool Aid that killed so many of them.
The House of the Devil (2009)
Director: Ti West
“During the 1980s over 70% of American adults believed in the existence of abusive Satanic cults,” goes the opening statistic in Ti West’s retro shocker. It’s a bit of a spoiler for a babysitter-in-peril story that takes the slowest of burns to get to its horrific finale. Jocelin Donahue plays the student whose efforts to earn some extra cash take her to a remote house one night, where she soon finds out it’s not exactly child-minding she’s wanted for.
Very effectively mimicking the visual style and techniques of 70s and 80s slasher movies, from its yellow-font credits to its grainy 16mm look, The House of the Devil transcends mere nostalgia by being frigging terrifying in its own right. Without excessive use of jump scares or musical exclamations, West cranks maximum anxiety from long scenes of our heroine simply exploring the (apparently) empty house. Listen out for Lena Dunham as the voice of the 911 operator.
Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011)
Director: Sean Durkin
Debut writer-director Sean Durkin made a splash with this creepily effective indie thriller in 2011, so it’s a shame we haven’t seen a follow-up feature from him as yet. Winning best director at Sundance and later playing at Cannes, it’s the understated yet cold-sweat-inducing story of a young woman (Elizabeth Olsen) who escapes from a cult in the Catskills, turning up at her sister’s Connecticut home to tell her tale and begin a paranoid attempt to reintegrate into normie life.
Durkin’s distinctive title comes from cult leader Patrick’s (John Hawkes) habit of renaming his eager disciples, one of the many insidious methods of control that are revealed to us as the narrative flashes back to life in the commune. This was the breakthrough role for Olsen, who was justly acclaimed as the jumpy, damaged woman grappling to put her mind back in order.
The Master (2012)
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Having tackled pioneer-era spiritual fervour in There Will Be Blood (2007), Paul Thomas Anderson dropped this hypnotic origin story of one of the most debated of all new religious movements. The Church of Scientology is never mentioned, but there are unavoidable echoes of its history and ideas in ‘The Cause’, and the magnetic Lancaster Dodd is a spit for L. Ron Hubbard. In Philip Seymour Hoffman’s performance, Dodd is a fascinating study in the sheer force of personality – a snake-oil salesman who feeds off the devotion of the lost souls who flock to him.
In documentary form, Alex Gibney and Louis Theroux have both lifted the lid on the alleged cult-like power dynamics of the Church of Scientology. Unanchored from the specifics (and perhaps the controversy) of tackling the Church head on, however, The Master plays as a wider examination of the nature of cults and gurus – and what draws drifters like war vet Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) to their flame.
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