Cults are terrifying. Monsters, ghosts, and demons sometimes work to frighten us in the moment of a film, but cults scare us because messed up people capable of violence are all too real. One person mentally deluded into thinking their actions are dictated by god is bad enough, but a whole group of them? Willing to commit heinous acts of violence in the name of their beliefs, gods, and all-too human leader? Terrifying.
Plenty of movies exploit our fear of such religious-minded mob mentality, and while some blend it in with action elements or supernatural elements the core remains the same. Creepy cults lend an unsettling feel to a film whether they’re grounded or not, and they can help lift a horror movie from good to great when done well. V/H/S 2‘s “Safe Haven” segment doesn’t make the cut here as it’s part of an anthology, but it came close as it’s that damn effective and packs one hell of a punch in its short running time. The ten films below are features where sicko cults play a major role in threatening the film’s protagonist.
Keep reading for a look at the 10 best killer cult movies as voted on by Chris “Cage-Rage” Coffel, Kieran “I Spell Kults WIth a K ‘Cuz I’m Scottish” Fisher, Brotherly Brad Gullickson, Meg “The Sacrificer” Shields, Jacob “Just Drink the Kool-Aid” Trussell, and myself.
10. Mandy (2018)
Jeremiah Sand is a failed folk singer turned hippie cult leader. His followers, known as the Children of the New Dawn, beckon at his every call, willing to do whatever he requests in order to gain salvation, or something. His latest request is that of Mandy, a fantasy artist living in the middle of the woods with her boyfriend, Red. After his goons capture Mandy she makes fun of Jeremiah’s little winkie and the situation quickly escalates. Faster than you can say Cattle Decapitation, Red, played by a gloriously demented Nicolas Cage, is getting into chainsaw fights and crushing skulls. By the time the end credits roll we’ve all gone on an emotional roller coaster featuring an LSD infused loop-de-loop that leaves us a blood-soaked mess. Thanks a lot, Jeremiah. – Chris Coffel
9. Drive Angry (2011)
What makes Drive Angry so compelling is how self-confident it is. Here we have a film, released in 2011, about a dead man (Nicolas Cage, again!) who steals Satan’s gun to escape from Hell so he can hunt down a psychotic cult leader who killed his daughter a decade before. You wouldn’t be wrong in thinking “Wow, this sounds like a Redbox film.”, but NO. Drive Angry was released wide and in 3-D no less! And we’re not talking about the immersive 3D where you get a new sense of depth perception. No, we’re talking about the schlocky Jaws 3-D “It’s coming right at you!” style gimmicks that made the format king of genre cinema in the 50’s. And that’s ultimately what this film feels like, cult action horror that was extracted from a bygone era that’s just one Warren Oates cameo away from being utter perfection. If you always wanted a third Cage-led Ghost Rider film, this is your best bet for blissful cult madness. – Jacob Trussell
8. The Devil’s Rain (1975)
Oh baby if you like a good’n goopy FX melts have I got the film for you. Mark’s dad is missing. He turns up at the front door with cryptic warnings about a book, only to dissolve into a puddle. Obviously Mark’s mom knows that this has something to do with the Devil’s Bible hiding under their floorboards. From there, Mark must square off in a faith battle against a horde of cultists to get his parents back. I’m sure they can pour his dad into a bucket or something. The Devil’s Rain is full of charmingly bad acting, jump-cut hexes, rituals galore, a bonafide Anton LaVey cameo, and a 10 minute (10 minute!) melt sequence. What more could you want? – Meg Shields
7. The Invitation (2015)
Few things are as awkward as hanging out socially with your ex and their new lover. Will (Logan Marshall-Green) finds those few things, though, when he agrees to attend a dinner party hosted by the pair in the house where his son died. Karyn Kusama‘s brilliantly executed film invites us to the party too as small talk and chatter lead Will to suspect things are about to get far more uncomfortable. His ex-wife’s new friends are part of a self-help group, and as the evening moves forward he comes to believe they’re actually a cult with ill intentions. The film plays his paranoia beautifully throughout leaving viewers unsure if he’s correct or if his grief is simply playing him for a fool. It’s only in the film’s devastatingly thrilling third act that the truth comes out… hence its appearance on this list. – Rob Hunter
6. The House of the Devil (2009)
Ti West’s House of the Devil is perhaps the pre-eminent Mumblegore movie. Tangentially linked to The Duplass Brothers’ Mumblecore films, the movies re-emphasized a lo-fi realistic aesthetic borrowed from the late 70’s and 80s. With this film, though, they borrowed more than mere aesthetics, ripping their story directly from the headlines of the 1980’s Satanic Panic. Affectionately apocryphal, it follows the archetypal story of a babysitter, going well out of her comfort zone for a job out of sheer desperation. After discovering her ward is not a child, the tension ratchets from 9 to 11 as the true nature of why she is there bubbles to the surface. Featuring a knockout performance from Jocelin Donahue and the ever reliable Tom Noonan, West’s film arguably opened the door for many of today’s modern trends in independent horror. – Jacob Trussell
5. The Cabin in the Woods (2012)
Drew Goddard‘s smart, bloody, and ridiculously entertaining film is sheer perfection in my eyes, and it doesn’t quite get the recognition it deserves as a fantastic cult movie. Until now. Friends find terror in a cabin in the woods, but it’s quickly revealed that their violent ends are being orchestrated by a slickly run organization responsible for sacrificing young people to evil every year in an effort to stave off the return of the Old Gods. They may wear ties and name badges, and they may banter about lunch and weekend plans, but they’re every bit a cult. Like their ancient descendants burning witches at the stake or sacrificing virgins to the devil, they’re a group of like-minded individuals ending other people’s lives to extend their own. Cult bastards! – Rob Hunter
4. Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
Finding a respectable apartment with decent rent is near impossible. There are always compromises to be made and accepting weirdo tenants is simply part of the deal. Trust in your husband that he did the proper research and you won’t end up the incubator of the anti-Christ. Unfortunately, poor Rosemary can’t maintain faith in the man in her bed. The residents of the Bramford complex are diabolical servants of evil, and have spent lifetimes manipulating her arrival at their doorstep. Satan’s seed has been swimming her way from the words “I do.” First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes 666 in the baby carriage. She’ll need more than courage to survive what comes next. – Brad Gullickson
3. Kill List (2011)
Were you to spontaneously boot up Kill List, you’d be forgiven for initially thinking it to be your run of the mill crime drama contract killer fare. Only huh, there does seem to be quite a bit of blood rituals going on. And our two leads do find it strange when their victims keep thanking them. Kill List is a genuinely surprising film that pulls the rug out from under its own conventions and slams its foot on the claustrophobic intensity pedal until its final, earned, absurd moments. Between the social realism and the oppressive dread, you’d be very hard pressed to nail down what makes Kill List so deliciously uncomfortable. But that’s half the fun. – Meg Shields
2. Race With the Devil (1975)
Roger (Peter Fonda) and Frank (Warren Oates) just wanted to get away from the stressful existence of their motocross business. They pack up their wives and dog in their RV and hit the road for Aspen, Colorado and snow resort bliss. While encamped alongside some random Texas river, they witness the satanic sacrifice of some screaming young thing. Spotted, the cultists give chase. Director Jack Starrett (a.k.a Rambo’s first victim in First Blood) takes the popularity of the satanic panic and transforms it into a gnarly action extravaganza of shattering car crashes. What powers do these fanatics wave? Nothing genuinely supernatural. Their evil is deadly human, and terrifying in their desperate pursuit of Roger and Frank. – Brad Gullickson
1. The Wicker Man (1973)
What is there to say about this movie that hasn’t been said before? It’s a truly original, despite all the folk horror fare that’s tried to recapture a similar kind of magic since. The Wicker Man is a bona fide masterpiece. How many other movies feature quirky folk songs and oddball comedy yet still manage to be constantly unsettling and downright terrifying? The cult in question isn’t an accurate representation of paganism, but that doesn’t make them any less enjoyable or effective. Christopher Lee as their leader is a delight, and his performance holds up as a career best. Sorry Dracula, but Summerisle is the cooler horror icon. – Kieran Fisher
Related Topics: 31 Days of Horror Lists