The secretive and illusive nature of cults has been depicted in cinema for decades. Human curiosity has looked at these mysterious organisations in a variety of screenplays, examining cults’ religious devotions and obsessions. To chime with the release of Martha Marcy May Marlene (out 3rd February), check out some of cinema’s best cult films.
10. Indiana Jones and Temple of Doom
The second Indy film directed by Steven Spielberg follows the legendary Dr. Jones (Ford), who travels to an Indian village where the natives believe spirits have nabbed their children because of a sacrosanct jewel that was stolen. The film has actually ripened with age and is now revered by critics, whereas, on its release, Temple of Doom was criticised for excessive on-screen violence. The release was originally a controversial subject because of its depiction of Indian culture (India temporarily banned the movie), particularly because Temple of Doom illustrates Indian villagers’ appetite for human sacrifice, snakes, eyeballs and monkey brain.
Another ‘80s classic that stars Harris Ford; Witness centres on an American detective who makes it his purpose to protect a young Amish boy besieged by a merciless killer after bearing witness to a homicide in Philadelphia. Detective John Book (Ford), returns with the boy to an Amish commune cut off from the rest of the world only to develop romantic feelings for the kid’s mother. Glittering with Academy Awards, BAFTAs and Golden Globes, Witness illustrates Amish traditionalism conflicting with the progression of a modern society.
8. Ticket to Heaven
Released in 1981, this Canadian production is based on the non-fiction book Moonwebs, which speaks of cultist experiences. The movie follows the lead, David Kappel, a young man, who travels to San Francisco following a devastating breakup with his girlfriend. Out in the country side, David notices an unusual summer camp; intrigued by the impenetrable walls of the camp and wooed by the etiquette of all who attend, David makes it his mission to gain access. The audience then witnesses the extremist tactics of a cultist organisation and brainwashing and torture transform David into an entirely different person.
7. Children of the Corn
Based on Stephen King’s short story, Children of the Corn horrifies audiences using a young male protagonist who visits a Nebraskan town and orders kids to murder the adult inhabitants. As the town’s streets become eerily desolate, the kids pray to a celestial force in the corn fields. Fritz Kiersh’s adaptation may not be the best cinematic production, but seriously, it is a sinister assault on the senses.
6. Eyes Wide Shut
Directed by Stanley Kubrick, Eyes Wide Shut co-starred Hollywood’s favourite couple, Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman. The film depicts a certain Dr. Harford (Cruise), who develops an obsession with adultery after uncovering his wife’s lust for another man. After a wild night on the town, Hardford hears of a sexual organisation and attends one of their meetings. What started as Harford’s hunger for sexual gratification quickly turns into nightmare, and this gripping thriller sketches the full effects of orgiastic chaos.
Recognised as one of the scariest films to come out of Italian cinema, the camera follows an American dancer who joins a European ballet school. Straight from the start, a brutal and violent murder takes place in the school. The film’s protagonist soon realises that the school doesn’t actually practice ballet; instead, the school is a front for an abhorrent organisation with a thirst for bloody murder. The caption on the movie poster says, "The only thing more terrifying than the first 80 minutes of Suspiria... is the last 10". And they weren’t lying.
4. Disturbing Behaviour
Starring the young Katie Holmes and released in 1998, Disturbing Behaviour is a sci-fi questioning a town’s teenage rehabilitation program. There is just something rather odd about the school psychologist and his “special program”.
3. Fight Club
Fight Club has its own cult following, which is ironic when the film focuses on group obedience to a particular cause. Fed up with consumer need and greed, Jack (Norton) attends gloomy self-help groups until he meets Tyler Durden (Pitt). Together, the pair create a violent, sadistic organisation that is intent on causing the destruction of society. Fight Club is recognised as one of the best novel adaptations and illustrates submission and deference, even in the face of death.
Unhappy with society’s dysfunctionality, Ruth (Winslet) leaves suburbia for Indian tranquillity. However, worried for their daughter, Ruth’s family hire the esteemed P.J. Waters (Keitel), who claims to be able to reverse brainwashed hippies. Waters takes Ruth to an isolated spot in the Australian Outback, and the two leads battle one another for domination. Stunning on-screen chemistry produces sexually charged performances from Keitel and Winslet.
1. Martha Marcy May Marlene
Marcy May (Elizabeth Olsen) suffers harrowing flashbacks of her abusive and incestuous past. This film illustrates the complete defilation of a person’s identity, perhaps best depicted when Patrick (Hawkes) casually renames Marcy May after a horrific rape scene. The film’s examination of psychological repression and the effects of abuse are poignant and eye-watering. And Olsen’s haunting performance will leave the viewer with a wrinkled brow.
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