One theme, five killer films. We explore the horror of mind manipulation and dangerous cults with five hidden genre gems we command you not to miss.
Satanic cults and devil worshipers have been a staple of horror films since day one, which means those movies are a dime a dozen. In my opinion the real-life cults that have historically shocked and disturbed society are much more fascinating, as charismatic individuals have managed to brainwash average people into thinking that they alone hold the secrets of existence with the bogus claims of spiritual transcendence.
Religious cults (or “new religious movements ” as they are more generously referred to) were a distinctive phenomenon of the 20th century, but it wasn’t until the 2010s that they started getting the proper horror treatment. Movies like I Drink your Blood (1970) and Eaten Alive! (1980) found inspiration from the likes of Charles Manson and Jim Jones, but cult themed films have only recently found their footing.
For this “Five On It” feature, we bring you a few lesser known genre gems about creepy cults that may have you drinking the Kool-Aid before you know it.
1. The Other Lamb (2019)
A moody drama with some heavy post horror influences, Malgorzata Szumowska’s The Other Lamb is an intimate portrait of life in an isolated religious cult. The film demonstrates the appeal of such an existence — eschewing modern comforts for a simpler life that harkens back to an idyllic vision of our pastoral roots. The commune sustains itself much like our ancestors did before the advent of modern conveniences, and they support and care for each other without the distractions of technology.
This also gives them more time and energy to dedicate to their spiritual lives, which revolve around a single man they call “Shepherd.” As his moniker indicates, their messiah has clearly gone to great lengths to cultivate a Jesus-like persona, though he engages in the rather un-Christlike practice of taking multiple wives. In fact, the cult consists entirely of Shepherd’s various wives and daughters.
Much like the historical societies it attempts to recreate, a world that perhaps seems idyllic and uncomplicated on the outside is propped up by exploitation, inequality, and an overbearing patriarchy.
The film is unique in that it is from the point of view of one of Shepherd’s daughters, Selah, a brooding yet bright-eyed girl on the verge of womanhood. Her intense gaze reveals her fiery spirit, but just like everyone else in the family, she is desperate for her father/messiah’s attention and approval. Despite her sheltered upbringing, she is wise and perceptive beyond her years. And when the group is forced by local authorities to leave their comfortable compound to seek a new homeland, she starts to see the cracks in her world’s perfect façade.
The Other Lamb is a stark image of a man who feeds on and abuses the love and adoration he demands from his family. It uses a familiar cult formula as an allegory for a family dynamic that is unfortunately not uncommon in standard American households. Symbolism borrowed straight from sources like The Handmaid’s Tale (the women wear different brightly colored frocks to delineate status) and The Witch (rams with menacing horns are a recurring theme) hammer home the feminist message, as well as the critique of how organized religion reinforce oppressive traditions.
As the rest of the list will show you, the story itself is not particularly novel or unique, but the telling is uniquely powerful and haunting.
2. Apocalypse Cult (2014)
Apocalypse Cult (also called Apocalyptic) makes a good case for why we need more horror movies about freaky religious cults. Though it comes across as a hastily cobbled together found footage flick about a religious commune in backwoods Australia, it gives us a glimpse into how ripe the cult theme is for some truly soul-shaking terror.
Jodie and Kevin are video journalists who stumble upon the opportunity to cover a reclusive religious community that lives off the grid in an undisclosed location. They can’t believe their luck when the group invites them in with open arms and allows them to candidly witness and film all of the intimate activities of their daily lives (including some of their more taboo practices). After all, why should the community worry about being exposed to the outside world when they know the apocalypse is just around the corner?
Their leader, Michael — more worm-like than awe inspiring — informs the journalists that he is God incarnate and that he will soon be leading the women who follow him into the next life. Though their beliefs are unorthodox, at first Jodie and Kevin enjoy the group’s hospitality and even start to develop relationships with some of the members. But over time, they find it more and more challenging to maintain their roles as impartial observers, as the group’s behavior pushes the boundaries into increasingly disturbing territory.
Australia is no stranger to cults, and can boast having been home to one of the rare religious movements lead by a woman, called “The Family” in the 1960’s (though Australia’s real-life cult is not nearly as apocalyptic or death obsessed as the cult in the movie.)
It makes sense that director Glenn Triggs opted to create a fictional cult in order to amp up the horror factor. Unfortunately, he did a disservice to the film by using a found footage format (I don’t think I’ve ever felt so motion sick from a movie in my life.) I got the impression that the majority of the dialogue was ad libbed, which is always a risky move with serious subject matter, and it gave the film an awkward and amateurish feel.
Overall, it’s a fun roller coaster ride of a movie (or should I say Tilt-a-Whirl) that is sure to pique your interest for some more creepy cult action.
3. Savage Messiah (2002)
There are many movies inspired by the real-life horror stories of the most infamous cult leaders, like Jim Jones and Charles Manson, but I really can’t in good conscience recommend any of them. The actual stories behind them are so breathtakingly heinous and disturbing, they belittle any fictionalized version (of course you can never go wrong with one of the many good documentaries.)
One exception is the true and strange story of Roch “Moïse” Thériault, a cult leader from Quebec and contemporary of Jim Jones little known outside of Canada. Savage Messiah is actually a made-for-TV drama, but it’s impossible to tell the story of Thériault without making a hard landing in the horror category, even with director Mario Azzopardi’s relatively watered-down version of actual events.
Thériault was a devout Seventh Day Adventist who started amassing a following with his outgoing nature and interest in alternative medicine. What started off as holistic medical clinic gradually escalated into a full-blown community of people (mostly women) who worshiped Thériault as their spiritual leader.
The film picks up the story up from the perspective of a child welfare social worker, Paula, who has taken it upon herself to look into the community’s unconventional lifestyle. Though she strongly suspects that things are not as wonderful and idyllic as they seem, the Canadian government is mostly uninterested in monitoring the goings on at the compound.
Paula remains convinced that there is something sick and twisted beneath Thériault’s jovial charm, which he uses to dazzle everyone who crosses his path. Once she exposes the monster underneath, Paula makes it her life’s mission to extradite his victims from his dangerous web — where rape, abuse, murder, and horrific mutilation have become a way of life (and remember, this is just the stuff they could show on TV!)
You might go into this unassuming Canadian TV drama with relatively low expectations, but I can almost guarantee that by the end it will make you question your very faith in humanity.
3. Jackals (2017)
One appeal of cults is that they offer their members a chance to belong to a close-knit group of like-minded individual, providing a family that can feel even more loving and more bonded than one’s flesh-and-blood relatives. The unfortunate result is that the families of origin experience a profound loss and betrayal, as their loved ones sever all old ties in favor of their new chosen family.
This phenomenon gave birth to a very particular kind of psychological technique called deprogramming, meant to reverse the effects of brainwashing and bring people home to their pre-cult lives.
In Kevin Greutert’s Jackals, the Powell family has hired a professional deprogrammer to attempt to pull their wayward son, Justin, out of a closed-off cult of young people who believe in an impending apocalyptic revolution. The only problem is the cult won’t let their beloved member go so easily.
With the help of the deprogrammer, the Powells abduct Justin and take him to their vacation home in the woods, hoping they can recover the son they know and love beneath the brainwashed shell. Barely a few hours pass before a group of jackal-headed cultists start to close in on them, who clearly have no intention of leaving empty handed.
As the Powells desperately try to convince Justin that they are his true and only family before the cult once again rips him from their lives, they find themselves forced to confront the dysfunctional dynamics that drove him away in the first place.
In its violent and dramatic fashion, Jackals highlights the very real toll that cult movements take on the families and loved ones of their members, whom they must completely abandon in order to prove their love and devotion to their new master.
5. Rebirth (2016)
After the end of the 20th century, the heyday of religious cults making headlines seems to have drifted away with the Hale-Bopp comet. However, that doesn’t mean that society has been cured of its tendency to develop an unhealthy obsession with finding answers to its existential questions by turning to charlatans and false prophets.
Self-help gurus and pyramid schemes that peddle perfection are in no short supply these days, and they’ve found innovative and infectious ways to reach people that could teach Heaven’s Gate and the Branch Davidians a thing or two.
Rebirth is a twisted thriller that captures and lampoons how the modern self-help movement has reached new heights of insanity, as its protagonist, Kyle, is put through a series of ridiculous trials and tribulations in the name of personal enlightenment.
An old friend, Zack, shows up one day in the middle of Kyle’s repetitive and mundane life with an offer to save his soul through a workshop called Rebirth, which markets itself as a confidence building retreat for attractive young people who feel stuck in a rut. Kyle reluctantly decides to give it a try, and abruptly finds himself thrust into a nightmarish maze that could have come straight out of the imagination of Franz Kafka, where nothing makes any sense and all is not what it seems.
Kyle is the everyman American, whose spirit and creativity have been beaten into submission by a soul-sucking corporate machine. You might recognize a little bit of yourself in Kyle, and the salvation that Rebirth promises might even sound enticing. The film closes as if director Karl Mueller was presenting us with an actual advertisement for the Rebirth movement all along, which might even make you wish such a thing were real for a split second.
But step back and you see the same kind of psychological beatdowns and manipulative promises that cults have offered for decades (pro tip: if an organization feels the need to chant “not a cult!” in order to convince you, that’s a good sign that they probably are.)