The Best Movies That Involve Cults
In the last decade, there has been an uptick in true crime content in American media, and a subcategory of this genre has viewers’ attention in a twisted vice grip: cults. And it’s no major mystery why. Cults are a distillation of all the things America is fascinated by (from a reasonable distance, of course): handsome and charming psychopaths, seedy underbellies to idyllic suburban environments, missing people, and the ability for mass groups of Americans to believe in the absolutely crazy. Chances are, if a new miniseries has popped up on Max, it’s likely about a cult or some kind of repressed spousal-murder situation in a fanatically religious environment. It’s okay if you binged it, everyone else is.
If you stay up late on Wikipedia looking up the Branch Davidians and Waco, if you know what Jonestown is, or if you know the timing and major players involved in the Sharon Tate murders, don’t drink the Kool-Aid! Watch others do it in these top ten movies about cults.
10. Midsommar (2019)
Horror auteur Ari Aster’s second feature-length film begins with Dani (Florence Pugh), a young, traumatized woman who has just lost her entire family to a murder-suicide as she goes on a Swedish vacation with her dud of a boyfriend and some of his pals. Unlike most horror movies, where a curious jaunt into a haunted house has viewers screaming in frustration at the television, this movie has you wondering where the horror jump-off point begins. It’s certainly unsettling from the beginning, and the white-clothed. constantly-smiling group of Swedish commune members who entice Dani and her crew into their village for a cultural celebration certainly raise eyebrows, but the realism and bits of humor in the initial dialogue leaves the viewer just oblivious enough that the first gory sacrifice hits like a suplex. Any veteran viewers of cult content know that a “May Day” celebration and the mention of a “May Queen” should send Dani running to the hills (see Wicker Man), but if you’re new to the genre, every scene after they enter the commune comes as a gut-twisting surprise. The movie transcends quickly into all of the sick cult content viewers have come to expect: sex, incest, drugging, and pagan ritual sacrifice.
A combination of Aster’s psychedelic lens and gory imagery makes for an altogether enthralling experience, bringing the viewer close to what can best be described as a 4D experience of a bad mushroom trip.
9. Children of the Corn (1984)
If you are a single adult, there may already be nothing more terrifying to think about than children. However, American horror laureate Stephen King is to thank for bringing the creepiness of children into the collective consciousness of this country, enough so that a parent may be getting the holy water ready the moment their child mentions an imaginary friend. Children are a great centerpiece for stories about the supernatural due to their imagination and gullibility, and they’re often depicted as intermediaries between adults and evil entities, but in the 1984 movie, Children of the Corn, based on King’s novel of the same name, the children are the enemy. Imagine coming across a group of children, no parents in sight, dressed like 17th-century protestant farmers and gathered in cornfields to carry out the orders of an imaginary friend they refer to as “He Who Walks Behind the Rows.” Burn the place to the ground!
A combination of cold Americana and desolate American midwest set the scene for this terrifying movie about an adult-murdering cult, and Courtney Gains’ turn as the sadistic Malachai is most likely the reason redheads are unfairly referred to as the “spawn of Satan.”
8. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019)
Although cults aren’t exactly the main focus of Quentin Tarantino’s 2019 historical reimagining of Hollywood in the 1960s, the film dangles the Sharon Tate murders like a carrot in front of the audience for its first two hours of runtime, leaving viewers humming with anticipation, ready to recite the Wikipedia page of that fateful night like swifties hearing the opening line from “22” at a concert. The brilliance of this film is the twist in its rageful reimagining of the event. Throughout the film, Manson’s flower children pop in and out but serve as little more than a satirical depiction of the hippie craze of that time. In typical Tarantino fashion, his square-jawed, bronco-busting American heroes get the upper hand on the hippie dippies in a gory final act, flipping history on its head into a cathartic experience. If you were wondering how Tarantino could make the Manson murders funny, he did it.
If you’re a fan of true crime, this film is a fun way of looking at one of the most horrific events in the American pop culture lexicon and finds a way to flip the ghoulishness in American media. Tarantino knew what we wanted to see, and he provided in a way that had us feeling both guilty and relieved. If you want to see one where the cult doesn’t get their sacrifice in the end, this movie is for you.
7. Eyes Wide Shut (1999)
If America loves one thing more than violence in its movies, it’s sex. Stanley Kubrick’s 1999 film (his last) brings American audiences ever closer to the horrifying conclusion all this true crime and spouse-murdering fascination has been hinting at all along: America loves sex and violence wrapped into one. The film follows Tom Cruise as a handsome doctor on a single night as he is seduced further into a world of infidelity and drugs.
The climactic piece to this (still somewhat confusing) mystery is the infamous masked orgy. If you’ve ever wondered what the rich and powerful do to blow off steam, this film offers a window into a steamy Victorian mansion, opera masks, and an exclusive sex cult that will stop at nothing to protect the identity of its members. It’s creepy, fascinating, sexy, and there’s a mystery at the center of it all. What more could you want from a film about cults? Cruise (and the viewer) get a taste of the subconscious, the guilty pleasure, and the things we always bounce around curiously in our heads and it sends us all running back to the warmth and safety of Nicole Kidman’s arms. If you’re looking for the sexiest movies about cults, this tops the list.
6. Hereditary (2018)
Ari Aster’s debut feature film deals with the messed up things we inherit from our messed up families. Typically, our familial issues aren’t satanic in nature, but that’s certainly what the Graham family contends with in this film, and most people can relate to having an overbearing grandmother to some extent. Toni Collette turns in a powerhouse performance in a film complete with all of the cult favorites: a creepy child, satanic rituals, decapitations, art that incorporates dead animals, and naked bodies.
This film also has some brilliant camera work that blurs the distinction between doll houses and real homes as the Graham family feels as though its strings are being pulled from the beyond. The final twenty minutes will leave you in a trance, and the film has some images that can never be erased. This just may be the most artfully made horror film of the 21st century (if not of all time), and the murkiness surrounding how much of the supernatural is at play raises goosebumps to a euphoric level. The cult stuff doesn’t fully come into play until the end, but the reveal of naked bodies of all ages, shapes and sizes bowing in front of a decaying head could be hanging in the Louvre, it’s so beautifully done. Don’t watch this one alone.
5. The Master (2012)
This could be seen as a controversial submission to the list as Paul Thomas Aderson’s 2012 masterpiece is loosely based on the story of Scientology, a cult to many and a tax-exempt religion to some of Hollywood’s elite. But, Anderson’s decision to change “Scientology” to “The Cause ” in his film allows the audience to view how closely this movement resembles the focus of this list. If you ever wondered how people can get sucked into a cult leader’s web, this film serves as an effective character study that leads the audience bobbing along until the weirdness in this world rears its head. Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) is the charismatic leader of “The Cause” and Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) is a grunting, caveman-like WWII vet serving as Dodd’s drinking buddy and muscle man in an odyssey across America to spread the message of “The Cause.”
The film gives an enticing look into the personal life of the kind of person that would be able to influence thousands of seemingly normal people to wholeheartedly believe absurd messages and leaves one wondering if the leader believes it themselves or if all this preaching is a product of ego. Dodd’s theories come off as quasi-psychoanalysis, and he is seen as somewhat of a savior for the unruly and neglected Quell. This kind of charm and lofty way of speaking is what Hoffman uses to fool normal people into taking his ideas for science. This isn’t a horror movie, it is a deep-dive into the making of a cult.
4. Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
Roman Polanski’s 1968 horror classic might have introduced the idea of a satanic cult to the American mainstream and certainly led many to debate with their partners, along with potential baby names, whether the child they were bringing into this world was going to be a vessel for Lucifer. This film teases normalcy from the start, with a young, attractive couple moving into an apartment and gearing up for a life together. Their problems begin with a probing elderly couple that can’t seem to let them alone. But, many horror movie enthusiasts have learned that there is also nothing more creepy than normalcy. The annoying neighbors next door reveal themselves to be the annoying satanic witchcraft coven members next door, and what makes this movie all the more horrifying is the reveal that everyone in Rosemary’s (Mia Farrow’s) life is essentially Truman Show-ing her into doing Satan’s bidding.
This film is complete with a demonic-eyed baby and a horrifying Satan cameo.
3. The Wicker Man (1973)
This 1973 British horror film has essentially set the template for pagan ritual cult movies. There was the 2006 remake with Nicholas Cage delivering one of the most unintentionally hilarious freak-out scenes the actor ever put on screen (The bees! Not the bees!) But to see how influential this movie is, look no further than Midsommar. In this film, a devoutly Christian detective investigates the disappearance of a young girl on a remote Scottish isle. This peaceful island slowly reveals itself to be the home of a cult that prays to pagan Celtic gods led by the town’s leader, Christopher Lee. The film ends with a character being burned alive in the center of a large wicker man structure. This startling ending scene even influenced the eponymous burning effigy for the Burning Man festivals.
Christopher Lee has also stated it’s his favorite movie of all the films he has acted in, and this is coming from someone who was in the Lord of the Rings trilogy and the Star Wars prequel films. Cults for the win.
2. Fight Club (1999)
Not exactly a horror movie about satanic and pagan rituals, but certainly a film that deals, in part, with how cults come to be. Sometimes naturally and without much notice from those participating. Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) addresses the Narrator (Edward Norton) and their gang of bored, white men like a Reddit shaman, offering a call for something greater to the most comfortable, privileged, and sterile generation. He channels this inner rage and frustration into visceral experiences that release pent-up rage like an orgasm, revealing a post-sweat-it-out truth. The truth? They probably just needed to go for a jog every once in a while and get that serotonin pumping. But there’s nothing like exclusivity and shirtless wrestling to make one feel like they’re on the inside, like they’re keyed into a universal truth and have a pedestal to stand on. Not only did the characters in the film feel so fulfilled by Durden’s direction that they followed him deeper and deeper into a rabbit hole of destruction in the name of enlightenment, but it seems an entire generation of emasculated men took the message to heart outside of the movie.
This may be the greatest film about cults ever made because it was so slyly convincing and the leader was so charismatic and charming (and good-looking), that those who watched began their own sects across the country. The film is infamous for sprouting underground “fight clubs” around the country in the years following. Now that’s powerful.
1. Apocalypse Now (1979)
This film may top lists debating the best movies of all time, but that doesn’t mean it’s reserved for that topic alone. The first two hours of this film are a swirling psychedelic trip down the Mekong delta, but the last hour very well may be described as a horror cult movie. The film changes the moment Willard’s boat and ragtag crew cross the threshold into the Kurtz’s realm, welcomed by the startling site of hundreds of people painted white with weapons in hand and decapitated and castrated bodies hanging on ropes behind them in a muggy, humid temple setting that reeks of death and decay visually. The film captures that odd cult feeling of tranquility and evil. Brando’s Colonel Kurtz is so convincing and larger than life that those who have been sent to hunt him, instead join him. Visually, he is monstrous– an immense bald head and a body mostly concealed by shadows. He talks like a philosopher but eats, sweats, and bathes like an animal at a watering hole. He speaks of the “horror” and focuses on the violent impulses of humanity, and his followers guard him and listen to him as if he is a god. No cult appearance is complete without a memorable sacrifice, and the water buffalo scene (yes, animals were famously harmed in the making of this film) left both viewers and animal activists in shock.
Apocalypse Now (1979) Official Trailer