This week, Amy Berg’s Prophet’s Prey , a provocative documentary about Warren Jeffs and his abusive hold over the FLDS church, makes its theatrical debut (it will also air on Showtime October 10). Usually described as a polygamist cult leader, Jeffs is a frightening figure who has already been given the Lifetime movie treatment, with other fictional portrays surely to come.
Although their horrors are disturbingly real, true-life cult leaders like Charles Manson have inspired a slew of genre films (and documentaries) that exploit news headlines about sex and mayhem for the nail-biting masses. But Old Scratch has also provided the narrative for a number of films about cults. As the Satanic panic swept through the late 1970s into the early ‘90s, movies about secret Satanic cults surfaced, terrorizing audiences. Here are just a few films that feature creepy cults at their center.
Skip the Nicolas Cage adaptation of this 1973 British folk-horror tale, which channels the paranoia of the social and political landscape in the country during the era. Robin Hardy’s Wicker Man finds a pious Christian police sergeant seduced by a group of pagan islanders before a nightmarish ordeal that puts his faith to the test.
A young woman’s silent turmoil is revealed through flashbacks of her time in a Catskills cult where she adopts several shifting personas while under the leadership of a charismatic and abusive patriarch. Ambient dread.
An underground philosophical society seeks answers about death and the afterlife through the creation of martyrs. A transgressive classic in the New French Extremity movement that feels like a Georges Bataille story brought to life.
A documentary filmmaking couple sets out to expose a fraudulent cult leader (Brit Marling), who claims to be a time traveler from a war-stricken future and leads secret basement meetings. The documentary takes a different turn when one of the directors starts to fall under her spell.
From our own Jason Bailey on Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master:
Dodd is the leader of a fledgling religious organization known as “The Cause,” and because the character bears a more than passing resemblance to L. Ron Hubbard, most have presumed it to be some kind of devastating, scorched-earth takedown of Scientology. And maybe it is; Dodd’s own son insists that “he’s making this all up as he goes along,” and “The Cause” seems mostly comprised of intricate “processes,” “applications,” and platitudes like “the source of all is you.” But that’s not what it’s about. It’s a far more interesting movie than that.
Based on Stephen King’s short story of the same name, about a cult of children in a rural town who ritually murder in the name of “He Who Walks Behind The Rows.”
“I make films on the supernatural, and I make them because I believe in it.” —Jacques Tourneur
The late, great Christopher Lee’s favorite Hammer film, starring the distinguished horror icon as Dennis Wheatley’s fictional, aristocratic sleuth, the Duke De Richleau. He attempts to stop a Satanic cult from killing young initiates. Directed by Hammer’s prestigious Terence Fisher, who started the studio’s horror cycle with his 1958 adaptation of Dracula (also starring Lee).
Stanley Kubrick shows us what happens when you stray from home, pitting Tom Cruise against a secret sex cult that threatens his idyllic family life.
A look at Charles Manson and his family, featuring interviews with Squeaky Fromme and Sandra Good, with footage of the Spahn Ranch compound and Barker Ranch hideout in Death Valley. Music by Brooks Poston and Paul Watkins — former members of the family.
Clive Barker on his 1995 film Lord of Illusions:
I did not realise how much people would be freaked out by the cultist stuff and the notion of cults. The whole sort of Manson/Koresh thing that goes on in the movie really got under people’s skins with an intensity I didn’t anticipate and it freaked the hell out of them. I was also surprised by the little pieces of violence that really distressed people. The cutting of one character’s lips bothered them. Sometimes it’s a lesson. You can have these incredibly elaborate special effects and they may not be as devastating to people as something so small and intimate.
Timo Tjahjanto and Gareth Huw Evans direct one part of the found-footage anthology about a documentary crew seeking access to an Indonesian cult. Violent and featuring plenty of WTF.
An all-American boy in the thrall of a cult leader played by Peter Fonda — an aging counterculture icon by the time the film was made, whose circle of Hollywood friends (and perhaps the actor himself) crossed paths with Charles Manson.
A maddening cult that favors positivity and sing-song platitudes — with a dose of sleep deprivation and dietary restrictions. From Roger Ebert’s 1981 review:
What makes the film so interesting is that it’s not just a docudrama, not just a sensationalist expose, but a fully realized drama that involves us on the human level as well as with its documentary material. There are scenes that are absolutely harrowing: an overhead shot of David trying to take a walk by himself and being “joined” by jolly friends; a scene where he guiltily bolts down a forbidden hamburger; a scene where another cult member whispers one sentence that sounds to us, as much as to David, like shocking heresy. By that point in the film, we actually understand why David has become so zombie-like and unquestioning. We have shared his experience.
From director Ti West on his Vice-style, found-footage horror adaptation of the Jonestown story:
I didn’t want to make something that was based too much on religion like Heaven’s Gate, where people thought they were going to get on an alien spacecraft and go off. That’s too far-fetched and it makes people think ‘cult’ and ‘crazy people’ immediately. What’s interesting about Peoples Temple and Jonestown, and what I tried to bring into this movie, is that they’re just regular people who have been misled and taken advantage of. And I think that’s what makes it all the more horrific and the more frightening.
RKO’s take on a devil-worshipping cult in Greenwich Village, produced by horror maestro Val Lewton. From Slant’s Ed Gonzalez:
Chockfull of some of the most arresting images put out by Lewton’s Snake Pit factory. Where to begin? The two shots are dazzling displays of symmetry and the gaudy backdrops appear as if their chillingly communicating with the characters, seemingly dropping clues about their identities. But it’s the suffocating sense of dread that lingers in the air that the film is best known for—and, of course, its lesbian subtext. (Like the best Cronenberg, the film’s horror seethes beneath its beautiful, intoxicating surface—so much so you’re tempted to scratch it for relief.)
Director Ben Wheatley on his 2011 British horror tale, shot in Sheffield:
A lot of it is inspired by my anxieties and dreams, or should I say nightmares. Things like cults in the woods and the tunnels is all stuff I’ve had as a recurring nightmare since I was very little. I used to live near the woods. So that kind of side of it comes from there, cause a lot of people keep talking about “The Wicker Man” and it is a reference point, but it wasn’t “The Wicker Man” itself that scared me. These things, culturally, are quite close to the surface in the UK.
A young actress is indoctrinated into a cult fronted by a Hollywood studio and pays a steep price for fame. A Satanic body-horror tale.
Poorly received upon its release in 1976, To the Devil a Daughter marked Hammer Films’ last horror movie — at least until the studio resurrected the genre with their 2008 direct-to-video movie Beyond the Rave. Cat People‘s Nastassja Kinski plays a nun. Enough said.
Spanish Satanic sexcapades from the ’70s.
You’ll be wondering who fronted the money for this strange cast — including creepy Bette Davis alongside David Ackroyd, Rosanna Arquette, and Tracey Gold — in a made-for-TV film set in a rural New England town.
Biker gangs! Satanic Monks! Werewolves!
A human “dairy” farm run by a cult of vampires who kidnap a descendant of Elizabeth Bathory to gain her powers. Yep, it was the glorious ’70s.
Bless Peter Fonda for milking that Easy Rider image for all it was worth. He plays a motorcycle shop owner who goes on an RV trip with the fam, but whose holiday gets interrupted after witnessing a Satanic ritual murder at his campsite. One of director Jack Starrett’s selling points for the film was that he used real Satanists.
Ti West reminds us that we’d join any cult led by Tom Noonan and Mary Woronov.
Universal’s most successful film in 1934, thanks to a Satanic Boris Karloff and the stunning, Expressionist set design.
Body-swapping shenanigans in the name of Satan, starring Alan Alda and Jacqueline Bisset. From the New York Times:
Shift “Rosemary’s Baby” to California, with the nice young couple abruptly exposed to some chic, jet-set zombies, including the world’s greatest pianist. When this old demon dies, the husband acquires both his soul and pianistic genius, pounding out Liszt to prove it.
Call it a coven or a cult, Christopher Lee gets witchy, small-town New England style, in this atmospheric chiller.
Riley Stearns’ twist on the cult-deprogramming drama. From our own Jason Bailey:
Hometown boy Riley Stearns’ psychological thriller offers up a rare leading role for the great character actor Leland Orser (Seven, Very Bad Things), and yet another impressive piece of work by Mary Elizabeth Winstead (the filmmaker’s wife), and it requires two actors of their skill — it’s basically a two-hander, theatrical almost, in which a cult deprogrammer (Orser) locks himself into a hotel room with a kidnapped young woman (Winstead) and tries to break her. We’ve seen this kind of story before (it’s not dissimilar to Holy Smoke!), though in its early sections, Stearns sets it apart with dark humor and eye-catching compositions. Alas, it unravels in the third act (just when it needs to tighten up), cashing out its compelling narrative for a series of twists that aren’t nearly as clever as the picture thinks they are.
British bikers, a suicide pact, family secrets, and a bizarre frog cult. Nothing can prepare you for the absurdity of Psychomania.
When Johnny Depp was still tolerable and starred opposite Frank Langella in a supernatural conspiracy thriller. From director Roman Polanski: “I can only look at religion with a certain dose of irony, because I’m not a religious person. And of course, sex and religion, they’re always connected. Each religion has some sort of hangup about sex.”
A trapeze artist heads a cult that worships an abused, armless young girl — and then has her own arms sliced off by her cheating husband during a fight. Her son, played by director Alejandro Jodorowsky’s real-life son Adan, pantomimes his mother’s arms in a bizarre performance piece. The psychic connection between mother and son leads the boy to murder women in an act of revenge. Haunting and full of achingly beautiful imagery.
A moonshine-spiked psychosexual drama that morphs into a unique coming-of-age tale of a girl attempting to break free of depraved customs. Jug Face‘s plot is primarily built on whacked-out absurdism, but Kinkle impressively imbues this supernatural world of backwoods mysticism with a plausible milieu while still staying committed to the film’s own brewing insanity.
From Noel Murray:
Nelson shows how Jones’ followers made the transition from people of good will to accidental fanatics, with the help of several ex-members who survived Guyana, including Jones’ adopted black son, who talks about how much his dad loved Star Trek. But he misses a chance to connect the Peoples Church to the larger “Jesus freaks” and apocalyptic leftist movements, and he fails to really explain Jones except in the abstract, as a well-meaning man corrupted by demagoguery. Still, while Jonestown lacks the power of revelation, it’s a first-rate piece of journalism, as fascinating and thorough as any magazine article. The film ends with a lengthy explication of the Guyana tragedy, supported by absolutely jaw-dropping footage of Jones confronting an investigative reporter mere hours before the citizens of Jonestown would assassinate California congressman Leo Ryan, then take their own lives. While Jones shows the camera crews around the compound, he nonchalantly shows off the supply trunks, noting, “Here we have rice… black-eyed peas… Kool-aid.”
Based on Manson family prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi’s 1974 book of the same name and featuring dialogue pulled straight from the courtroom transcripts. Martin Scorsese was originally offered the role of Charles Manson, but Steve Railsback delivers an electrifying performance as the hippie cult leader. To prepare for his role, Railsback locked himself in a closet for 45 minutes every day.
Essentially a mainstream exploitation flick. Martin Sheen battles a cult that fuses Santería and Voodoo, in a story based on real-life serial killers Adolfo Constanzo and Sara Aldrete. From Brett Gallman:
The Believers [is] well-crafted schlock that’s also deceptively heady. It might not have much to say about faith, nor does it ever quite shake its xenophobia, but it does make for a good reminder that the worst devils often wear a suit and tie.
Absurdist urban sexual anxiety — or what happens when one woman’s creepy ex-husband, who convinced her to join a sex cult, won’t stop stalking her.
From director Jane Campion: “It is a kind of essay about love, about belief systems, about love being a belief system even.”
From Tiny Mix Tapes:
The Institute, a new documentary directed by Spencer McCall, looks at a game of sorts that was created by Jeff Hull in San Francisco from 2008-11. San Franciscans woke one morning to find fliers around their city advertising personal force fields, the ability to talk to dolphins, and other fanciful delights if they’d just call the number on the bottom. Those that dialed soon found themselves invited to a room in a building in the financial sector, and on the first step of discovering this alternate world complete with mystery, wonder, and competing factions: The Jejune Institute and the Elsewhere Public Works. Soon, participants were going on various scavenger hunts, engaging in impromptu protests, and occasionally breakdancing on the street with sasquatch in exchange for further clues about this mysterious other world. Eventually, the game ran its course and concluded, and McCall interviewed the creators and participants to learn about what they each got from the experience. Of course, it’s not that simple. Many elements are presented as fact, and some do offer behind-the-scenes insight or reflections of genuine players, but some of it is all misdirection presented with the same straight face.
A Utopian dream takes a turn for the weird when Father Yod, a natural foods restaurateur turned spiritual guru, weds 13 women, starts a band, and takes a deathly leap off a cliff.
Spanish sleaze set in the English countryside, involving Satanic group sex rites and a black goat (you have been warned).
The suburbs are no place for a budding Satanist. Read what filmmaker Frank Henenlotter (Basket Case, Brain Damage, Frankenhooker) has to say about Satan’s Children:
What scared America more in the Seventies: devil cults or homosexuals? Well, according to this deeply deranged regional rarity, even Satan hates gays…. Troubled teen Bobby Douglas (STEPHEN WHITE) is so fed up with his crotchety father and seductive stepsister — who’s always making fun of his wanker — that the kid finally cracks: “You go to Hell! Go to Hell! Go to Jesus-H-Christ Heeeeelllllllll!” Running away from home, Bobby unknowingly ends up at a gay bar (which looks like an ordinary diner) and, before long, is raped by four guys in the back seat of a car. (Supposedly. Though Bobby struggles and screams, the worst we actually see is someone patting his fanny.) Discarded by the side of a road, Bobby is soon discovered by the titular Satan’s Children, a commune of volleyball-playing devil worshippers. Nursing his sore ass in one of their beds, Bobby immediately causes a controversy. Second-in-command Sherry — who just rebuffed the lesbian advances of another member by punching the girl in the face — thinks Bobby’s “beautiful,” but cult member Joshua begs to differ: “Don’t say he was raped ’cause you don’t know! You go making dispensations for a queer and you’ll unleash all the demons of Hell on this place!” Sherry deals with the issue by hanging Joshua and climbing in the sack with Bobby. Unfortunately, the leader of the group, sultry-eyed Simon, doesn’t like Bobby either and buries Sherry up to her neck near an anthill in the backyard. (Simon also magically makes the lesbian gal bleed from her mouth.) But Bobby escapes only to — inexplicably — commit some murders in the hopes of joining the gang…. Obviously, the film raises a number of interesting questions. Is it saying that homosexuality is an offense so perverse that it’s even beyond evil? Or is it arguing the reverse? If homosexuality is repugnant to satanists, wouldn’t that make it good? Perhaps, even holy? Yeah, well, it’s doubtful the filmmakers had anything more profound on their minds than cheap thrills and easy targets. Still, for a film that seems so homophobic, Satan’s Children goes out of its way to fetishize the young man in the lead. Not only does Mr. White spend half the film semi-naked, but the poor kid (who often looks like he’s about to burst into tears) is forced to run through a swamp in his cute little undies. If Satan’s Children was a man instead of a movie, one would say he’s not only terribly confused but in serious need of outting. Shot in the Tampa Bay area by a director anxious to escape TV work, one of the crew members — MARC WIELAGE, a then-19-year-old camera assistant eager for some feature-film experience — kept a behind-the-scenes diary on the making of the film. Amazingly, he’s now published that diary online at ://www.big13.net/making_of_ satans_children.htm. It’s mandatory reading for anyone interested in the pure hell of low-budget filmmaking.
Boarding-school made-for-TV horror — produced by Aaron Spelling, and starring Charlie’s Angels’ Kate Jackson and Cheryl Ladd. An amateur investigation into the death of a young girl leads to the discovery of a Satanic basement cult at the Salem Academy for Women.
The gateway to hell is inside a Brooklyn Heights apartment (choose your own joke, here), where the neighbors will kill you. The Sentinel was recently released by respected cult film label Shout Factory.
A sleazier, gorier version of Rosemary’s Baby by Ignacio Iquino, who is sometimes known as the “Spanish Roger Corman.” One woman gets pregnant with, oops, the Antichrist’s baby. A cult of Satanists are determined to see the child born so he can destroy the world.
One woman is lured into a devil-worshipping sex cult to free herself from her troubled past, but murder and mayhem ensue. Sergio Martino’s psychedelic giallo film has a lot to say about female hysteria, but is also a fun occult-horror flick for the Italian genre enthusiast.
A mondo film is an exploitive documentary that attempts to blur the lines of fiction and reality, featuring shocking subjects that are usually focused on foreign cultures. The movie that started it all was 1962’s Mondo cane, by Italian filmmakers Paolo Cavara, Franco Prosperi and Gualtiero Jacopetti, who manipulated footage for maximum freak-out factor. The film contains scenes of a cargo cult in New Guinea — exploiting the “cult” angle for Western audiences.