10 of the Best

10 of the Best… Films About Cults

Brainwashing, Satanic rituals, and lots of weird chanting: here we highlight our top picks from the world of cult escape films...

Those who choose to live away from the norm, as part of a sect or society, will always provide a source of fascination for the rest of us. A hippie commune might pose little threat, but what happens when a group unite in pursuit of a wrongful agenda? When does a community become a cult?

So often – in life and in cinema – do such hidden sects and societies reveal themselves as breeding grounds for deceit, brainwashing, and all-round evil-doing. In film, especially, cults have always been tied heavily to the occult: satanic worship, arcane rituals, animal sacrifice…

But cults are made to be fled. Here are 10 of the best movies about cults gone very bad and the escapes (or escape attempts) that followed…

 

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

This second Indy outing, set in India, finds its hatted hero answering the pleas of a village whose children have mysteriously vanished. Turns out they've been enslaved by a surviving sect of the ancient Thuggee cult, now up to no good in the catacombs of a nearby palace, ripping hearts from their victims and plotting to take over the world. Spielberg's sequel is underrated beyond belief; an action-adventure extravaganza made entirely from gripping set-pieces, witty back-and-forth dialogue, and what is arguably John Williams' best ever score. Fortune and glory, indeed.

 

Kill List (2011)

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

The former soldiers at the heart of Ben Wheatley's folk horror-thriller Kill List, played by Neil Maskell and Michael Smiley, have seen a lot of bad stuff in their time – a point reaffirmed by their constant references to an ambiguous event that took place in Kiev years earlier. Yet nothing can prepare them for the cultish horror that awaits when they agree to “one last job,” that most foolish of cinematic acts. What seems like a straightforward series of hits soon reveals itself to be part of a wider and more sinister conspiracy. Wheatley's film excels in a type of mounting dread that comes to a head in a truly terrifying and claustrophobic tunnel chase sequence. What do these cult members want? This director knows that the less we understand, the scarier it is.

 

Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011)

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

While many of the films listed here depict cults in more extreme or heightened ways, Martha Marcy May Marlene offers a more sobering and realistic portrait of a woman whose life has been turned upside-down by her prior involvement in a cult. The focus here is Elizabeth Olsen's Martha as she tries to reintegrate into society but finds her past is constantly getting the better of her. Director Sean Durkin employs a non-linear narrative in order to depict the fractured nature of Martha's mind. John Hawkes, meanwhile, gives arguably his best performances as one of cinema's more believable cult leaders.

 

Faults (2014)

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

Faults is as much a portrait of a “cult deprogrammer” as it is about fleeing a cult, as Ansel Roth (a brilliant Leland Orser) is hired by a couple to deprogram their daughter, Claire (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), who has pledged allegiance to the titular organisation. In order to do so, Roth abducts Claire and holes up at a motel whilst her parents listen in from the next room. Yet nothing is quite as it seems here, and we can't help but ask: who is playing who? Writer-director Riley Stearns creates a tight and crafty little thriller that will keep you guessing until the very end.

 

Green Room (2015)

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

For a band scraping to get by, a gig is a gig, right? But it's this thinking that leads the band in Green Room into an unthinkable conflict in the depths of a hellish Neo-Nazi stronghold. Neo-Nazis qualify as the worst cult of all: never bothering to hide the hate beneath subtle brainwashing techniques but wearing their prejudices proudly, as a badge of honour. Jeremy Saulnier's brutal and intensely drawn thriller doesn't pull any punches in its depiction of the ensuing showdown. Anton Yelchin and Imogen Poots are excellent as the witnesses to a murder who become targets themselves, whilst Patrick Stewart – yes, that Patrick Stewart – turns up in a truly uncharacteristic role as the lead Nazi (Charles Xavier, he ain't).

Get Out (2017)

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

Meeting your partner's parents for the first is never not a nerve-racking experience. But what if they also happen to be part of a sadistic cult, too? That's the problem faced by Daniel Kaluuya's African-American photographer, Chris, whose weekend at his white girlfriend's family home turns into a nightmarish battle to stay inside his own body. “I would have voted for Obama for a third term if I could,” intones Bradley Whitford's desperate-to-be-woke dad, before revealing that his idyllic American homestead is a front for a barmy racial conspiracy. In Jordan Peele's capable hands, Get Out is a masterclass of lip-biting tension, while its finale stretch makes for fist-pumping stuff of the highest order.

 

Midsommar (2019)

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

Ari Aster's Midsommar, setting a new standard for daylight horror, finds grief-stricken Dani (Florence Pugh) embarking on a trip abroad with a cowardly excuse for a boyfriend who can't figure out the right way to dump her. Their destination is a remote Swedish village where pagan traditions and ancient customs appear to be ripped out of a book titled “Cults 101.” Apparently these weirdo practices are the norm here and guests should be respectful – even as the body count begins to rise. But quickly it's all too much to bear and escape is necessary – from the cult, yes, but also from one very toxic relationship. Yet what of Dani? Her destiny, it appears, lies elsewhere, with a sacred dance, flowery crown, and a bear. Not all cults are meant to be fled, it turn out.

 

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019)

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

The majority of Quentin Tarantino's ninth film is about hanging out and making movies – a mantra for the motor-mouthed director if ever there was one. But it's also set at a point in the '60s in which the Manson clan were about to change everything. Partway through, Brad Pitt's laconic stuntman, Cliff Booth, winds up at the infamous “Spahn Ranch” and narrowly evades the cult's clutches. He, of course, doesn't know how dangerous they are or what he's dealing with; and that goes doubly so during the film's ultra violent final sequence in which Manson clan members try to kill him after he's just dropped a load of LSD. If the ensuing bloodshed seems uncharacteristic of what is an otherwise laid back picture, one can't deny the cathartic highs of Tarantino's historical rewrite.

 

Ready or Not (2019)

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

In a way, all families are cults. Newlywed Grace (Samara Weaver) finds out the hard way when she learns on her wedding day that her super rich in-laws – who have made a fortune from their board game empire – take initiation rituals super seriously. Falling victim to an unbreakable tradition, she's plunged headfirst into a game of cat-and-mouse and is given 'til morning to survive against a barrage of eccentric family members wielding very sharp weapons. Wits count for everything as this bloody and blackly comic thriller takes us through a very awful night all the way to one explosive and unexpected conclusion. Be careful who you marry, is the overall gist.

 

Doctor Sleep (2019)

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

This stylish and well-made film from writer-director Mike Flanigan – a belated and arguably unnecessary sequel to The Shining – is better judged on its own merits, away from Kubrick's classic. It finds Danny Torrance (Ewan McGregor) in his forties, still haunted by the events of his youth (being chased around a hotel by your dad with an ax will do that to you). Now working as a hospital orderly, he uses his telekinetic powers to ease elderly patients into peaceful deaths, earning him the therapeutic nickname of the film's title. Matters are complicated when he learns of a deranged cult of vampire-like creatures who prey on children who “shine.” He must confront his past in order to stop them, which eventually leads him back to – you guessed it – the notorious Overlook Hotel.

Other Features

25 Essential Ennio Morricone Tracks

After his passing at the age of 91, we look back at some of the greatest ever scores from cinema's greatest ever maestro

Best Films to Stream This Week in the UK

What to stream and rent this week, including Lin-Manuel Miranda's acclaimed musical and the latest oddity from Werner Herzog...

In Five Films: Werner Herzog

With the arrival of Family Romance, LLC, the Japan-set curio from the Bavarian legend, we try to sum up his career in just five films

Netflix’s Homemade Short Films, Ranked From Worst to Best

Netflix's new lockdown anthology series collects shorts from filmmakers around the world, including Kristen Stewart and Paolo Sorrentino. But how do they compare?

Reviews

A White, White Day review – chilly Icelandic drama explores the futility of revenge

This Scandi thriller about a grieving grandfather from writer-director Hlynur Palmason is best when at its most grounded

The Booksellers review – a documentary to curl up with

D.W. Young's easygoing examination of New York's rare and antique book scene makes for interesting, if unremarkable, viewing

Lynn + Lucy review – British debut is stingingly insightful

Fyzal Boulifa's drama is a cut above most kitchen-sink debuts and features an outstanding turn from newcomer Roxanne Scrimshaw

Welcome to Chechnya review – vital and harrowing LGBTQ+ persecution doc

David France’s latest film presents the unfiltered, distressing realities of LGBTQ+ Russians fleeing the torturous Chechen regime