Stephen Arnell

Twisted worlds: 10 films about cults

Twisted worlds: 10 films about cults
Midsommar, Image: Shutterstock
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It makes sense that a closed, secretive world full of strange rules and rituals would appeal to film-makers but the sheer number of films about strange sects makes it more than a passing fascination. The cult has become a well-established cinematic trope.

Here are ten films that are worth your time:

Midsommar (2019) – Amazon Rent/Buy

Ari Aster, who also helmed Hereditary (another cult-themed movie), directs this fine-looking folk horror picture which depicts off-the-beaten-track Swedish communities as pagan holdouts where human sacrifice to the old Norse gods is still practised. Midsommar owes a considerable debt to The Wicker Man (1973), but still manages to carve out (sic) its own unique identity, with the ghastly denouement foreshadowed from the get-go. The movie also has echoes of 2017’s The Ritual, which we’ll discuss shortly.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019) – Sky Movies, Amazon Buy

Quentin Tarantino’s wish-fulfilment/alternative history take on the 1969 Manson Family murders of Sharon Tate and friends is over long and indulgent but is still a great movie.

The picture boasts career best performances from Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt as washed-up TV actor Rick Dalton and his best pal/ stuntman double Cliff Booth respectively – which is just as well since the pair dominate the 161-minute running time. Tarantino’s attention to late 1960s period detail verges on the obsessive, likewise his continuing female foot fetish, which I personally could have done without.

Margot Robbie (Sharon Tate) is given little dialogue, which is a shame, and some took issue with the director’s depiction of Bruce Lee, (Mike Moh). Damon Herriman plays Manson, a role he also took in the Netflix drama Mindhunter

Doctor Sleep (2019) – Sky movies, Amazon Buy

Although a box office disappointment that earned mixed reviews, Doctor Sleep swiftly accrued cult status when the movie hit streaming services.

Many would say that attempting to make a sequel to Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980) was asking for trouble, but horror auteur Mike Flanagan makes a very decent fist of adapting Stephen King’s 2013 follow-up novel.

39 years on from the events at the Overlook Hotel, reformed alcoholic Dan (formerly Danny) Torrance (Ewan McGregor) is forced to confront the ghosts of his past when a new threat emerges. That threat is the ‘True Knot’, an evil cult led by Rebecca Ferguson’s Rose ‘The Hat’ (because she wears a hat, no relation to the late Jack ‘The Hat’ McVitie) who feed on the ‘steam’ produced by psychics when tortured and killed.

Doctor Sleep is a long movie (152 minutes) but one that moves at a fair clip, unlike the 305-minute endurance test that was the two-part adaptation of King’s It (2017 and 2019).

The Perfection (2019) - Netflix

A gruelling watch for some, Richard Shepherd’s (Dom Hemingway) pictures’ twist consists of having a cult comprised of an elite group of music conservatory students led by the creepy Bachoff Academy head Anton (Steven Weber).

His quest for musical perfection involves torture, gang rape and tattooing his brainwashed followers. Holy hell kicks off when previous victim Charlotte (Get Out’s Allison Williams) enacts her convoluted revenge scheme. If you remember the disconcerting ending of Tod Browning’s controversial Freaks (1932) you will have an idea of the fate that awaits Anton.

Needless to say, he won’t be playing the piano again.

Apostle (2018) - Netflix

Another movie in the vein of The Wicker Man, this time though with the action taking place on a lonely Welsh island in 1905.

Gareth (The Raid) Evans’ picture trots out the pagan human sacrifice-in-aid-of-crop fertility trope again, this time to ‘Her’, a Celtic goddess played by Pobol y Cwm’s Sharon Morgan.

Once you get beyond the overly familiar plot, The Apostle is a handsomely mounted (albeit bloodthirsty) production, with a strong performance from Dan Stevens as good guy Thomas Richardson and an OTT one by Michael Sheen as cult leader Malcolm Howe.

Mandy (2018) – Amazon Rent/Buy

This visually striking Nic Cage occult thriller is probably a Marmite experience for many viewers. Cage goes on a rampage when a group of goofy cultists led by Ken Barlow’s son (an excellent Linus Roach) kidnap and kill his girlfriend Mandy (Andrea Riseborough). Most of the movie plays like a bad acid trip, with director Panos Cosmatos’ colour palette making the low-budget production look stunning.

The Ritual (2017) - Netflix

Two years before Midsommar, another group of tourists decide to sample the bucolic delights of Sweden, this time four British lads with a yen for hiking the Kungsleden trail in the north of the country. As you can probably guess, things don’t go entirely to plan, as they encounter the by now expected village of oddballs, who sacrifice strangers to the Norse supernatural entity known as a Jötunn - in exchange for immortality.

The Ritual is a decent atmospheric thriller, with a rarity in these kind of movies – a happy ending (of sorts). With The Ritual and then Midsommar, the Swedish Tourist Association must be thinking what the country did to deserve this kind of disturbing depiction.

Get Out (2017) – Amazon Rent/Buy

Daniel Kaluuya is excellent as photographer Chris Washington who takes a trip with his white girlfriend Rose Armitage (Allison Williams) to meet her family in rustic Upstate New York.

There he is introduced to the sinister procedure known as ‘The Coagula’.

Get Out has some truly satisfying scenes of payback when Washington eventually confronts the Armitages, especially when he catches up with the supremely annoying Caleb Landry Jones (as Rose’s brother Jeremy).

I’m not going to spoil the picture by revealing any more but will remind readers where Peele found inspiration for the title – from a sketch in Eddie Murphy’s concert film Delirious way back in 1983.

The Invitation (2015) - Netflix

Tom Hardy lookalike Logan Marshall-Green (Prometheus) stars as Will, who accepts (why?) an invitation from his ex-wife Eden (Tammy Blanchard) to a dinner party at his swanky, former Hollywood Hills residence.

He brings along his girlfriend Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi), just to make it extra awkward. Even without the fact that his (*spoiler alert*) ex is part of a murderous Heaven’s Gate-style cult, the encounter is already a recipe for disaster.

Karyn Kusama’s (Girlfight) movie earned rave reviews, gaining praise for its tense, unsettling tone and ensemble acting.

Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011) – Disney+, Amazon Rent/Buy

Director Sean Durkin won critical acclaim for his disturbing tale of a cult based in Catskill Mountains of New York.

After escaping the group, Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) finds that the years of terrible abuse at the hands of cult leader Patrick (Deadwood’s John Hawkes) continue to haunt her every moment, both when awake and in her nightmares. Martha Marcy May Marlene was a breakout role for Olsen, who went to find Marvel movie stardom as Wanda Maximoff aka The Scarlet Witch.