The Best Depictions of Cults in Film and Television 

best cult movies

Tonight, the Paramount Network premieres the first installment in a six-part miniseries about real-life cult leader David Koresh and the tragic siege of his compound in Waco, Texas. Waco stars Taylor Kitsch as Koresh and Michael Shannon as FBI agent Gary Noesner, and will dig into the complexities of Koresh’s spiritual sect, the Branch Davidians, including their strange living conditions, and their leader’s penchant for marrying and sleeping with preteen girls. It’s the second fictional portrayal of Koresh in the last few months: Evan Peters’ also briefly tackled the part in an episode of American Horror Story: Cult late last year.

Koresh is having his day in the sun, but public fascination with cults and cult leaders is nothing new. There’s something inherently compelling and cinematic about the mass mania that permits these institutions. It’s a goldmine of character development and analytics, of drama and personal spectacle; a way of lifting the hood on human psychology and playing with the gears.

As cults rage on as potent storytelling devices, we’ve compiled a list of the best-ever depictions of cults and cult mentality in narrative film, documentaries, and television.

Martha Marcy May Marlene

Elizabeth Olsen burst onto the scene after her turn in this 2011 Sundance hit from first-time director Sean Durkin. Olsen stars as the titular Martha (who dons the other names in the title at different points in the film), a young woman on the run from a violent cult based in the Catskills. After returning to her sister’s home, she has a hard time adjusting to reality, so warped is she from strange life she lived on the cult’s rural farm. Sarah Paulson co-stars as Martha’s sister, and John Hawkes plays Patrick, the cult leader, a Manson figure who believes in free love, female servitude, and disrupting social order as a means of progress and survival. The film borrows a lot from the Manson murders – the farm is a less glamorous Spahn Ranch, and the home invasion scenes are right out of Helter Skelter – but it also carves its own identity, choosing to focus on the specific psychological damage cults inflict on brainwashed young women.

Where to watch it: Buy or rent on iTunes and Amazon

Rosemary’s Baby

It’s hard to pigeonhole Rosemary’s Baby as a “movie about a cult” because the cult stuff is mostly in the shadows until the film’s final scene, and even then it’s arguably more of a coven than a cult. But given the prominence of a cult-like central figure (Roman Castevet or Satan, take your pick), we’ll count it. The film, about a beautiful young New Yorker impregnated by Satan, is another portrait of a psychologically damaged woman. Rosemary’s docile domesticity and innocence allow the betrayal she’s later faced with, when her actor husband trades her body to the devil-worshipping neighbors for his own shot at fame. Rosemary is drugged, raped, and then assumed insane once she starts putting the pieces together. It’s a harrowing look at 1960s America, as gender roles began to shift, and female agency solidified. Mia Farrow is haunting as Rosemary, and you’ll never forget Ruth Gordon as her quirky, Satan-hailing neighbor.

Where to watch it: Buy or rent on iTunes and Amazon

American Horror Story: Cult

People really slept on AHS: Cult, one of the show’s best seasons, and a truly great depiction of the insidious way cults start in someone’s living room before growing into violent, parasitic movements. Evan Peters plays Kai Anderson, a lonely and lifeless young man who, after the election of President Trump, is incentivized to wreak havoc in the Michigan suburb where he lives. He preys on the weak people he encounters, exploiting their fears and desires, convincing them to dress up as clowns and terrorize their community. His masterful way of interpreting the work of other famous cult leaders – one standout episode has Peters depicting Koresh, Manson, Jim Jones, and Marshall Applewhite – and where they went wrong almost carries him to a Senate seat, but then he meets his match in Sarah Paulson’s Ally Mayfair-Richards, a self-described “nasty woman” who throws a wrench in his ascension. It’s a great season full of terrific performances and a seething self-awareness that transcends the sins of American Horror Story past.

Where to watch it: Buy or rent episodes on iTunes and Amazon

The Wicker Man

The original – not the 2006 Nicolas Cage remake – is the godfather of all cult movies. Edward Woodward is excellent as Howie, a police sergeant who travels to a remote island searching for a missing girl. The island is inhabited by a kooky New Agey-type cult – led by Christopher Lee – that worships Celtic gods and puts toads in their mouths to treat cold sores. They are uncooperative with Woodward, claiming the young girl never existed, and eventually reveal their plot to trap and sacrifice Howie to improve their harvest. The Wicker Man is a weird and creepy product of its time, and had a massive impact on the horror genre.

Where to watch it: Stream it on Shudder

Going Clear

Alex Gibney’s documentary – an adaptation of Lawrence Wright’s bestselling book – is a compelling and upsetting deep-dive into Scientology, that Hollywood “religion” that, according to ex-members, is far more dangerous than Tom Cruise’s flashy smile would have you believe. Gibney interviews a slew of former high-ranking Scientologists, who unveil the church’s brainwashing recruitment tactics, abusive faculties, and family-destroying rubrics. If Going Clear leaves you hungry for more, Leah Remini’s A&E reality series, Scientology and the Aftermath, is a solid follow-up.

Where to watch it: Stream it on HBONow

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