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A different kind of cult movie: A guide to films that take on religious cults

Religious cults seem all but designed for easy scriptwriting. The conflict and human drama are built into the situation, it is easy to establish an antagonist and a victim, and the potential for an emotionally charged escape or rescue scene is always there.

A good storyline can add the larger questions of control, community, spirituality, and truth to the mix. Some of the best examples of films dealing with cults have taken strikingly different approaches to the subject. Here are a few that stand out.


“Isn’t that easier than thinking?”

Faults (2014) is a tragic/comic study of the often fictionalised profession of cult deprogrammer. Unlike many dramas about manipulative and domineering cults, which tend to follow the progress of someone who has either escaped from a cult or been forcibly removed from one with the clear goal of breaking free, Faults makes room for all the complications and ambiguities which can come from a clash of imperfect human beings coping with a variety of issues, from free will and human autonomy to money and power.

Our central character, Ansel (Leland Orser), is a complete failure in every area of his life. He once had modest success as the author of a book on religious cults; but since a fatal mistake while conducting a ‘deprogramming’ session years earlier, his fortunes have declined sharply. He is in debt, conducting badly attended seminars in seedy hotels in hopes of selling old copies of his book, trying to outrun his ruined reputation and his debts. He is hopeless, and even occasionally and ineffectually suicidal, but Orser plays the character as comically pathetic rather than tragic.

Following a particularly disastrous seminar, Ansel is offered an unexpected opportunity. An older couple approach him, requesting his help with their daughter, Claire (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), who has joined a new and esoteric cult known as Faults. Claire’s membership in Faults has resulted in her cutting all ties with her parents. In need of money, Ansel agrees to kidnap and deprogram Claire.

The actual kidnaping and imprisonment of Claire is a slapstick scene of confusion and inefficiency, but ultimately Claire is in Ansel’s custody, and his deprogramming regimen is underway. From here, things do not go the way Ansel had intended. Claire is indeed unquestioningly devoted to her cult community, but she is not a helpless dupe. She is more determined, and more resourceful, than expected, and calmly takes stock of her situation and finds ways to gain the upper hand. As Ansel’s personal problems, and the desperation and instability of Claire’s parents, throw a continuous series of obstructions into the process, Claire gradually and inconspicuously gains ground over all of them.

Under the stress of the deprogramming process, combined with personal conflicts, Claire’s parents, and then Ansel himself, begin to break down and become confused and out of control, while Claire remains calm. As Claire takes charge, the relationship between therapist and subject reverses – with unexpectedly horrific results and a surprise ending, a shocking reminder that the pernicious aspects of mind-controlling cults are real, and more dangerous than Ansel had taken into account. The ending is more than a little contrived, but it’s still a fun ride.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead is believable and strangely fascinating as the resourceful and determined Claire, a character who seems gullible and idealistic because of her attachment to the doctrines of Faults, yet eventually emerges as a confident and astute opponent, prepared to use any means available to protect her beliefs and regain her freedom. The film’s novice director, Riley Stearns (Winstead’s husband), keeps the plot lively and unpredictable, and the interaction of the small cast is always effective, always hinting at something more beneath the surface of each character and each relationship.

Martha Marcy May Marlene

This intense, subtle 2011 psychological drama is the first, and so far only, feature film by writer/director Sean Durkin. It follows cult member Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) as she impulsively runs away from the small community of followers she had joined two years earlier. She contacts her sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson) who brings her home and tries to help her, but is unable to discover where Martha has been or what is troubling her. The film is striking in its ability to show both sides of the issue; to reject a cult’s control mechanism yet empathize with a cult member’s attachment to her community and the safety of a common belief system and common purpose.

The title refers to the names Martha has used at various stages of her life: her given name; the new name she is granted by her cult leader; and the ‘official’ name all female cult members are instructed to give when asked. The mixing of names also describes Martha’s state of mind: she is unsure of who she is, who she wants to be, and has been left in no condition to decide. We are given enough background to see that she had been exactly the kind of vulnerable, slightly damaged person a charismatic sect leader would be able to manage and control.

The story is told entirely from Martha’s point of view, and we soon recognize that physically leaving her cult community was not enough to rid her of its power over her. While she has fled from the abuse and control she experienced, the loyalty to her former community and its leader which has been instilled in her, and her fear of reprisals, prevents her from explaining to her sister what has happened to her during the two years she was missing. As we see, through flashbacks, how she was drawn in and ultimately dominated by the manipulative leader, the community’s controlling yet supportive environment, we come to understand Martha’s reluctance to speak, her inability to trust ‘outsiders,’ and her paralyzing ambivalence about betraying her former leader.

When Martha’s sister, and her sister’s husband, Ted (Hugh Dancy) become increasingly impatient with Martha’s odd behaviour and helplessness, Martha becomes even less able to open up to them, and longs for the flawed but familiar security of her former colony, and the status she held there, largely imaginary but superior, it seems to Martha, to her current place as unwanted and indigent houseguest. She fears and dreads being found by cult members, yet at the same time begins to leave possible clues as to her whereabouts, apparently by mistake. From this point, the distinction between Martha’s paranoia and legitimate fear of being found and abducted becomes blurred, and we share in Martha’s panic as she begins to see signs that she is being tracked. Elizabeth Olsen manages to convey all the layers of Martha’s feelings, her confusion and fear, her dwindling hope and frustration, brilliantly, even with minimal dialogue; her performance all but makes the film.

When Lucy and Ted finally try to relocate Martha in an attempt to help her as best they can, the film ends ambiguously, with no way for either her or the audience to know whether Martha is inventing danger in her own mind, or is genuinely being stalked by cult members. Without the ability to express her concerns, she is left isolated in her own fear and helplessness, passively waiting to see what will become of her.

Red State

Filmmaker Kevin Smith is something of a cult himself. His naturalistic American working class comedies, such as Clerks, Jersey Girl, and Zack and Miri Make a Porno, have gained a strong following. His following sustains him through the many films which are too crude, too disturbing, or too controversial for mainstream success. His bleak, satirical horror film Red State has elements of all three categories. Although Red State stays largely within the confines of a straightforward horror film, as far as plot structure, there are bizarre and outrageous elements typical of Smith’s films, as well as some extremely black comedy.

A ‘red state,’ in American parlance, is a US state which tends to support the more conservative Republican Party, or in broader terms, whose population is conservative in general. The title seems to be a little tongue-in-cheek, as the ‘conservative’ characters in the film are extreme in their views and actions beyond the limits of any political party.

The story begins when three teenaged boys encounter a woman online who claims to want to meet them for group sex. When they go to the arranged meeting site, they discover that the offer was a trap. The woman they spoke to is a member of a small, fundamentalist cult, led by the apparently insane Abin Cooper (Michael Parks), who plans to lure, abduct, and execute ‘sinners’ who respond to the online proposition. The boys are imprisoned in Cooper’s isolated compound, where they endure everything from sermons to beatings to actual crucifixion.

Local law enforcement are suspicious of Cooper’s enclave, but fail to understand what is really going on, and repeatedly miss discovering and rescuing the missing boys. This results in a series of attempted escapes, violent attacks, and generally bizarre interactions that are often so brutal and grotesque as to be funny – a specialty of Smith’s, who seems to be enjoying himself tremendously, portraying his own nation’s extremists wreaking massive havoc on principle.

One of the film’s notable bright spots is Michael Parks’ confidently weird performance as Abin Cooper, who is played colourfully as a charismatic leader barely hanging on to sanity, leading a very good ensemble cast.

The ending, which would normally be considered a positive resolution in which the bad guys are caught, is almost a letdown after the frantic action of the previous scenes. It’s of interest to Smith’s fans that he had toyed with the idea of a different ending, one in which the mad religious ideas of Abin Cooper not only turn out to be true, but result in an elaborate and almost literal deus ex machina which vindicates Cooper and his cult. Smith rethought the dangers of promoting such an idea when genuine ‘red states’ and real-life Abin Coopers still exist.

For further viewing…

The Master (2012) Two intriguing aspects of The Master have drawn particular attention: the Dueling Thespians spectacle of Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix playing against each other in the lead roles; and the open secret of the story, and its emerging cult, The Cause, being partly based on the development of Scientology, and the title character, Lancaster Dodd, on its enigmatic founder, L. Ron Hubbard.

Jane Campion’s unconventional 1999 comedy/drama, Holy Smoke! features Kate Winslett as an English woman who has joined an esoteric religious cult in India, and Harvey Keitel as the tough, macho deprogrammer hired to talk her out of it. The story turns into a bizarre and entertaining battle of the sexes, with Winslett at her very best.