Cults and Sects: Three top movies exploring the world of the cult

Cult (2019)

Director: Luke Ibbetson

Cast: Neil AllenJames BarnesAnthony Bullinger, Calvin Crawley, Marianne Chase, Luke Ibbetson, Edward Cole, Kyle Chase, Jacqueline Kirwan, Althyr Pivatto

Genre: Comedy/Drama

Luke Ibbetson’s debut feature film shines with originality, humour and engaging performances. In a superb mockumentary, that follows the final few months of a Cornish cult named F.A.T.E (Friends at the End). Its small band of followers patiently awaiting the arrival of a comet that will destroy the world. However, with dwindling numbers and crops failing (leading to a diet of nothing but potatoes), the intrepid and deluded band of followers desperately try to recruit new members. Their passion taking them onto the streets where they hand out flyers daily. While at the same time, the documentary crew intentionally watch from a distance.

Central to the small group, the young, eager and innocent Comet (Calvin Crawley) keeps spirits high. While serial cult member Beck dreams of sacrifice, as all the different groups she has been a part of merge into one fiery persona. Then there’s Manaus, who replaced his life in a band with the seclusion and safety of F.A.T.E; while retaining his love of magic mushrooms. Meanwhile, sex-starved Angela (Jacqueline Kirwan) dreams of engorged willies. But, when new girl Rachel joins the group after meeting Comet outside a rehab facility where her treatment is far from complete. A new dynamic of freedom and exploration surrounds the cult members. However, with the deadly comet just weeks away, even her new influence may not be enough to steer the group away from their final act of sacrifice.

The resulting film revels in the unique ability of mockumentaries to reflect the absurdity and reality of human experience; layering a vibrant and intelligent comedy with a far more sincere exploration of loneliness and group belonging. With each of the cult members striving to achieve a sense of balance and worth, despite the madness that surrounds them.

The films final scenes ultimately replacing the comedy with an emotionally impactful exploration of social control. The innocence and humour suddenly replaced by something far more profound in construct; the reality that many people find the world around them scary, big and loud. The safety of their self-identified community of belonging either secure in construct or dangerous in ideology.

Under the Silver Lake (2018)

Director: David Robert Mitchell

Cast: Andrew GarfieldRiley KeoughTopher Grace, Riki Lindhome, Luke Baines

Genre: Mystery

If you are a regular reader of my curated collections, you will know how I delight in throwing in a curveball. Therefore, you may be wondering why Under the Silver Lake has made it into our cults and sects special. I mean, sure it has a Hollywood cult at the heart of its complex story, but this is a tale of modern social paranoia, right?. Well, the answer to that is as complex as the journey we take. Following on from his far more commercial slice of horror with It Follows, David Robert Mitchell’s movie is wrapped in themes of modern paranoia while also unpicking the very meaning of the word ‘cult’. But, unlike many other pictures, you will find no religious fervour, no sacrificial alter and no deluded leaders hiding in rural seclusion.

The movie centres around Sam (Andrew Garfield), a 30-something slacker living on his own in an apartment he cannot afford. The city of Los Angeles writhing around him as it continually reinvents itself. With Sam spending his days engaging in meaningless sex, chain-smoking and comics. His very existence one of mundane habit as he watches the city consume everyone it invites into its dreamlike circus. But, one afternoon as Sam sits spying on neighbours, he finds himself besotted by an attractive newcomer in the shared swimming pool; later meeting the mysterious Sarah (Riley Keough) outside her apartment. But just as Sam gets close to Sarah in a haze of weed, she vanishes. Her apartment cleared overnight, almost as if she never existed.

From that moment on, we follow Sam’s increasingly delirious search for the mysterious girl, in a film that delights in paying homage to Hitchcock. While at the same time using the history of Los Angeles as a character in its own right, echoing Kubrick’s treatment of New York in Eyes Wide Shut. The resulting journey not only surreal in structure but also bum-numbing at two and a half hours. A trait that ultimately led to some pretty negative reviews on its release in 2018. But, fear not, as this is a film that not only shines with Garfield’s enigmatic performance but also delves into the very concept of the cult. Here, the cult at the heart of the film is multi-faceted, the city itself home to numerous communions.

Just like every major city in our world, Los Angeles is embedded in the cult of celebrity, the cult of subculture and the cult of popularity and privilege. The resulting journey unpicking the very foundations of city life as a home to sects built by those who live within its radiant glow. And it’s here where Under the Silver Lake is not only fascinating but socially complex. With a screenplay that demonstrates our need to belong to cults, based on our interests and social circles. While embedding this in the human need to build meaning into the meaningless, and a growing paranoia that nothing is real in our fabricated bubble of existence.

Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011)

Director: Sean Durkin

Cast:  Elizabeth OlsenSarah PaulsonJohn Hawkes, Christopher Abbott, Brady Corbet, Maria Dizzia

Genre: Drama/Thriller

Writer-director Sean Durkin’s exploration of the psychological power at the heart of cult membership is both unsettling and haunting. In a film that wraps the viewer in the inescapable grip of fear, as one young woman attempts to escape the confines of her two-year submersion in a cult located in the Catskill Mountains. With the movies slow-burn structure dovetailing concepts of escape and freedom with indoctrination, instruction and control. The cult at the heart of the film echoing the Charles Manson family in its deadly mix of gender power play, sex and violence.

The film opens with Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) fleeing the rundown rural house she shares with dozens of women and a handful of men. Her quick dash into the woods shrouded in a gut-wrenching fear as she heads into the nearby town. However, even the bustling town cannot protect her from the reaches of the commune she has left behind. With young cult member, Watts (Brady Corbet) attempting to draw her back into the fold. His brief discussion a warning, that even if she runs the group will remain with her. But, Martha opts for freedom, phoning her sister in Connecticut (Sarah Paulson); seeking her sanctuary while refusing to discuss where she has been.

But, as Martha settles into the home of her sister and her husband, her experiences of communal life haunt her every waking moment. While at the same time, her behaviour struggles to adapt to life outside of the cult’s grasp. Her time spent under the instruction and guidance of the oppressive cult leader, Patrick (John Hawkes) engulfing her mind. With the roots of cult life slowly encroaching on her ability to escape into a new life.

The distinctive title of Durkin’s film highlights the control Patrick wields over his subjects, as he gives each person a new name of his choice. With Martha (or Marlene) quickly becoming known as Marcy May. But, the belief structure of the cult is kept at arm’s length from the viewer, with the flashbacks concentrating on Martha’s experience. While at the same time, her reasons for joining the secluded commune remain shrouded in mystery. This, in turn, creates a narrative solely focussed on the psychological effects of cult life. With Martha’s escape from the groups clutches, never complete as she battles with her reintroduction to mainstream life. Her need for freedom sitting in an uncomfortable void of belonging. The cult’s vice-like grip never far from her mind as she attempts to take small steps forward.

Meanwhile, the viewer is submerged in one inescapable fact; her escape was too easy. The group possibly allowing her a brief flight of freedom before once more descending on their prey. And it’s here where Durkin’s film carries a sense of foreboding horror. Its final departing statement simple, yet equally terrifying in construct. A statement that points to something Patrick said earlier in proceedings when he declared “Fear is the most amazing emotion because it creates awareness.”

More cults and sects movies for you to explore

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Deliciously Dark Christmas Movies

Doctor Sleep