When police arrested Charles Manson and his “Family” members for the Tate-LaBianca murders in 1969, it triggered a public fascination with cults that has endured. Never a genre to miss an opportunity, cult-themed horror movies began popping up almost immediately in the early 1970s. One of the 2019’s worst movies, The Haunting of Sharon Tate, re-imagined the Tate-LaBianca murders in tasteless fashion. Even Quentin Tarantino’s most recent movie, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, revisited the infamous Manson Family. Countless horror movies and psychological thrillers have used the “cult” as a vehicle for inducing fear in audiences. This year’s excellent The Lodge is the most recent example. Below we re-visit 10 movies about cults you, or may not, have seen. Keep in mind, this list is neither exhaustive nor intended to be definitive. It’s merely intended to float out some movies you may want to check out.
The Devil Rides Out (1968)
One of Hammer Films’ best movies just happens to be one that doesn’t have “Dracula” or “Frankenstein” in its title. And Christopher Lee is the good guy for once. Based on a Dennis Wheatley novel, Lee plays Duc de Richleau, an occult expert, who sets out to rescue a friend from a devil-worshiping cult. The Devil Rides Out is Hammer at its best – supremely atmospheric and eerie. Watch for the appearance of Baphomet – the goat-headed demon – summoned during a ceremony. It’s arguably the movie’s best scene.
The Wicker Man (1973)
Forget the Nicolas Cage remake. The Wicker Man – an early example of British folk horror – is considered one of the scariest movies made for a reason. No, it’s not scary in any traditional sense of the word. Don’t director Robin Hardy to bombard you with loud sounds, quick edits, and cheap jumps. Instead, The Wicker Man’s story of a police inspector investigating the disappearance of a young girl on an isolated island relies on subtle and methodically paced suspense. Moreover, the movie’s examination of religious dogma through its juxtaposition of Edward Woodward’s conservative Christian police inspector and Christopher Lee’s pagan cult raises many interesting ideas. Wait for The Wicker Man’s shocking conclusion – it’s among the best in horror history.
Race With The Devil (1975)
Okay, Race With the Devil is a hokey movie that was released at the height of the 1970s “Satanic Panic”. It’s a pure midnight movie with production values not much better than the run-of-the-mill made-for-television movie from the same era. When two married couples witness a Satanic ritual, their RV vacation turns into a cross-country nightmare. Part horror, part car chase movie, Race With the Devil is pretty standard stuff. What makes it worth watching is its oddly unsettling downer of an ending. You’ll want to leave the lights on after this one is done.
Bad Dreams (1986)
Okay, Bad Dreams is easily the worst movie on this list. Several much better movies could have been included here in its place. But one of the points of this list was to introduce readers to movies about cults with which they may not be familiar. And while it’s clearly derivative of A Nightmare on Elm Street, Bad Dreams is a stylish horror movie that does more than enough to qualify as a guilty pleasure. Years after surviving a cult’s mass suicide, a young woman wakes from a coma only to be haunted by images of the group’s dead leader. Richard Lynch (Rob Zombie’s Halloween) does his best Rutger Hauer impersonation. In addition, director Andrew Fleming (The Craft) balances some good gore with a handful of decent jolts.
The Believers (1987)
For a brief time in the 1980s, Hollywood horror-thrillers were fascinated with the occult and, more specifically, voodoo. Angel Heart, The Serpent and the Rainbow, and this forgotten one – The Believers. With a pedigree director in John Schlesinger and top-notch actor Martin Sheen headlining, The Believers somehow still underwhelmed upon its release. Though it’s more of a mystery-thriller with some horror elements, The Believers boasts some creepy moments amidst what’s a genuinely intriguing story. Certainly, it’s deserving of an audience revival hopefully at some point. Besides, The Believers is also a good reminder that most deadly accidents happen in the kitchen.
Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011)
Martha Marcy May Marlene was the indie thriller that introduced the world to Elizabeth Olsen. It’s story of a young woman re-connecting with her family after spending years in a cult recalls some of the best movies revolving around unreliable narrators. After escaping, Martha – re-named Marcy May by John Hawkes’ quietly imposing cult leader – struggles to find normalcy amidst her fear and paranoia. You never know if Martha’s paranoia is justified or if she’s delusional. Shifting narratives from past to present cast more doubts about what is and isn’t real. And the movie’s final shot leaves you with more questions than answers. The result – you’re just as uneasy as the title character.
The Sacrament (2013)
Loosely based on the real Jonestown Massacre, “mumblegore” director Ti West took his slow-burn approach to found-footage with The Sacrament. VICE reporters travel to a remote religious commune to find a co-worker’s sister. What they find upon arrival appears to be a utopian community under the leadership of the seemingly benevolent “Father”. But it’s a horror movie that takes its cues from one of the worst mass cult suicides in history, so not everything is what it seems. West likes to take his horror slow and deliberate, which is definitely the case with The Sacrament. Given the subject matter, however, Ti West’s approach works to near perfection. The balance between normalcy and impending horror is more frightening than a dozen jump scares.
Last Shift (2014)
Last Shift is probably one of the better horror movies of the last decade of which you are probably unaware. Jessica Loren, a rookie police officer, is tasked with watching over a closing station until a HAZMAT team arrives to collect remaining evidence. Over the course of the night, a series of strange visitors and increasingly inexplicable events terrorize Loren. Everything seemingly ties to a cult leader and his follower who died in the station a year earlier. Like other movies on this list, Last Shift finds most of its horror amidst ambiguity. What’s real and what’s imagined keeps the audience guessing and frequently unsettled. This is definitely one worth checking out.
The Invitation (2015)
Your ex-wife invites you to a dinner party hosted with her new husband. And they’re members of a strange therapeutic cult. What could go wrong? Karyn Kusama, one of the most talented women in horror, puts on a master’s class in slow-suspense. Specifically, The Invitation is a methodical movie that requires its audience to invest in the characters and story. There are no jump scares or cheap jolts. Even once the movie kicks into full stride, Kusama never allows things to descend into over-the-top silliness. Everything feels like it could happen. In this regard, The Invitation is more unsettling than outright scary. And its ending is ambiguously creepy.
Hereditary director Ari Aster’s second movie, Midsommar, proves breaking up is hard to do. An idiosyncratic folk horror movie, Midsommar eschews traditional horror techniques. Specifically, Aster avoids jump scares and quick editing to elicit shocks. In fact, Midsommar’s approach to its often horrific imagery is almost benign. When one character smashes a face with a mallet, Aster doesn’t include the familiar production cues (e.g., music, editing) to remind the audiences it isn’t real. Given its runtime, Midsommar doesn’t always sustain its atmospheric dread. And, at times, it feels a little too pondering. Nonetheless, Aster’s sophomore effort is beautifully filmed, haunting, and delivers an ending as unnerving as The Wicker Man.