There are many films about or concerning religious cults, their leaders and more often than not – their demise as a group. The word ‘cult’ can be taken in many different ways, so these films are about different religious groups that have strayed from the ‘norms of society’, with leaders that have inflicted abuse, discomfort and/or unease on their members.
This list is not meant to oppress or impose any belief, as religion is a topic that can be quite controversial. By saying that, these are all interesting and well-made films that may shed some light on the way cults work, how they affect people and how manipulating and rewarding they can be.
20. The Magdalene Sisters (2002)
Peter Mullan’s The Magdalene sisters is set in Ireland in the 1960s. Based on true accounts, it follows three young women who are committed to a Roman Catholic Laundry. These Laundries ran until 1996, until they were finally shut down. Women were sent to these places, and most of them never left.
Accused of sins – namely, flirting with boys, victims of rape and pregnancy outside of wedlock, these women were forced to partake in unpaid labour supposedly to save them from sin – as were the cases of Margaret, Bernadette and Rose, the main characters in this film.
Sister Bridget is the nun in charge of the institution, and she rules it unjustly and with a streak of sadomasochism. As the girls become friends they decide their only way to survive is to escape. The Magdalene Sisters won 16 awards and received 13 nominations.
19. Children of the Corn (1984)
Children of the Corn, based on the short story by Stephen King, follows Burt and Vicky, a troubled married couple looking to reconcile their marriage by going on a vacation to California. Travelling through rural Nebraska they encounter some trouble – they need to report a murder, and are trying to find a town to call the police from. They circle around and around and the only place they come across is a small village named Gatlin.
Gatlin seems to be a ghost town, although they find that there are still in fact people living there, but they are all children. These children have been convinced that the only way for a good corn harvest is to sacrifice anyone who is over the age of 18, to the entity of the corn who is only known as “He Who Walks Behind the Rows”.
There are some great performances from child actors and although the ending is a bit lacking, the power and manipulation of the “elders” of the town (Isaac and Malachi) are spooky and convincing enough to justify it’s cult following, no pun intended.
18. The Master (2012)
Paul Thomas Anderson’s (director of There Will Be Blood) latest feature film The Master is set post WWII. Joaquin Phoenix plays Freddie, dismissed from the Navy for psychological problems. He drifts around, is an alcoholic and sometimes very violent. Freddie becomes involved with Lancaster (played by the late, great, Philip Seymour Hoffman) who is the head of a religious group named “The Cause”. The film weaves around their relationship.
The Master was very well received by critics, but for the layman it is quite slow, quite long and drawn out. It’s in no way a bad film, but it perhaps takes patience and repeated viewing to really be appreciated. It seems to study the nature of man, without an overbearing need to analyse it – which some may be moved to do. Regardless of whether the audience enjoys it, Joaquin Phoenix is superb in it, you should watch it just for that, if not anything else.
17. Sound of My Voice (2011)
Zal Batmanglij won 2012’s Palm Springs International Film Festival’s Award “Director to Watch” with his directorial debut Sound of My Voice. Peter and Laura are a couple, one teacher, one writer, who are making a documentary film about Maggie (played by Brit Marling). Maggie is the leader of a small cult and she claims to be from the year 2054. They plan to infiltrate the community and secretly gather information to expose her as a fraud.
Once Peter and Laura are accepted into the group, feelings change. Laura believes Peter is under Maggie’s spell, and when she requests him to bring someone to the house they reside in, he hesitantly agrees. Laura does not, however and plans to bring the group to justice. Sound of My Voice received positive reviews from critics, keep an eye out for his new film The East which came out last year.
16. Holy Smoke! (1999)
Jane Campion’s drama film Holy Smoke! is set partly in India and partly in Australia. While Ruth (Kate Winslet) is on holiday in Delhi she becomes infatuated with a spiritual leader known as Baba. As she is about to be initiated into Baba’s group, her parents organise a well thought-out lie to bring her home.
Ruth refuses, but eventually agrees to come back to to her family with her mother suffers an asthma attack in the busy streets of Delhi. Ruth’s parents have organised for P.J. (played by Harvey Keitel), a renowned cult deprogrammer, to fly over from the States. With a lot hesitation and anger, Ruth eventually agrees to spend three days with him in a small house in the remote Outback.
Jane Campion’s auteur direction is noticeable in Holy Smoke!, with strong female characters, unconventional love affairs, humour and specific colouring. It is an interesting look into how difficult it must be to get out of a cult and the complexities of allowing oneself to get into one in the first place.
15. Savage Messiah (2002)
Savage Messiah is based on the true events of the Roch “Moïse” Thériault commune in the late 1980’s in Ontario, Canada. Paula (Polly Walker) is a social worker whose investigation into the commune brings her face to face with the real Roch (Luc Picard), behind the façade he produces for the surrounding town.
As Roch’s tight knit community starts to crumble his manipulative, power hungry, physical and psychological abuse grows into an all consuming whirlwind. As Paula unravels more of the hideous things that are going on behind closed doors, the more his many children and wives, or “concubines” as he refers to them, are mistreated.
Filmed with quite a low budget and some fantastic acting, the realism this film portrays is outstanding. Not for the faint of heart as some scenes, and the psychological aspects, may be a little too hard hitting.