(I never quite finished writing this post but I figured I'd throw it up anyway...)
By 'Cult Movies' I mean movies about cults... spooky, creepy, weird, dangerous cults.
Movies about singular demons and possessions don't as often work on me, probably because such beliefs aren't part of my upbringing. The thing under my bed was some uncaring and unaligned ghoul with a taste for toes... just hungry, not 'evil'.
The reason cult movies work on me where demons fail is probably because my father was always something of a conspiracy buff... the Republicans, the Jews, the Government... they were all up to something... and it usually, eventually, got around to including UFOs as well.
So vague fears of strangers who mean you harm. That always get under my skin.
I think the first movie about a cult that I remember seeing was Race With The Devil (1975). Two families in a motorhome (my family had a motorhome) trying to escape a bunch of weirdos after witnessing a late night human sacrifice. Not a great movie but it's got a building paranoia to it as the protagonists (and the viewers) begin to suspect that everyone they run into is in on the hunt.
Others that worked on me as a kid were all along the quality spectrum. While I might think something like The Devil's Rain (1975) was ridiculous some other piece of junk like Equinox (1970) would be keeping me up late for a week. Rosemary's Baby (1968) was creepy but I think a lot of it went over my head as a kid... and was Rosemary herself ever really in danger (well, other than the whole 'raped by Satan' thing...)? I mean, everyone seems pretty OK at the end. Right?
Happily, there are a lot of movies that aren't specifically about cults but work on those same fears.
A good number of vampire movies seem to present the idea of a creeping threat as your friends and neighbors turn into something else and come looking for you. Some of the Hammer Dracula movies depicted Dracula as a former/wannabe leader of a cult of the undead. Similarly, Salem's Lot (1979) had a good bit of the cult elements at work in it.
Zombie movies can also work on much the same level. Groups of malevolent strangers all around you.
I suppose it works on our common insecurities. Fear of the crowd. Fear of being singled out. Being alone.
As a kid I saw a TV clip of a woman being chased by seemingly cheerful partygoers in weird makeup. A bizarre game of 'tag'? That clip stayed with me for years until I managed to track down the movie it was from, Carnival of Souls (1962). Not exactly a 'cult' movie but still hitting a lot of the same notes.
Right around that time I also saw Night of the Living Dead (1968)... even less of a cult movie but still hitting that fear of crowds.
The same goes for any movies depicting unseen 'others' among us ala They Live (1988)... really though, Society (1989) is my favorite for that sort of freakout.
Political conspiracy movies can be really effective at raising those fears as well.
3 Days of the Condor (1975), and The Parallax View (1974) both push those buttons for me. Just because they're not worshipping Satan/Cthulhu/Mother Nature doesn't mean they're not sinister and dangerous and EVERYWHERE.
Smaller cults, like the ones in Red State (2011) and the one segment of V/H/S/2 (2013), still get to me, but they work more on my fears of religious zealots, rather than my paranoid delusions about crowds of faceless strangers.
So what, IMO, makes a good cult movie? Why do the robed mutants in Omega Man (1971) make me laugh while the single normal-looking girl at the end of Equinox still creeps me out?
Well, for one thing, I like the cult to remain mysterious.
The cult in The Nameless (1999) are literally a nameless pack of strangers. It's never made clear what they believe or what they do to their victims. Their numbers and motivations are never defined.
Similarly The Seventh Victim (1943) doesn't give the audience too much time with its Satan worshippers. What we see of them is fairly mundane. Just bored socialites playing with the occult, but there is a suggestion of more under the surface.
Kristy (2014) was alright-ish but the best bit for me was during the opening credits, suggestions rather than details regarding the cult's size and motivations. The idea that this was happening in other cities pushed it up out of it's otherwise blah storyline.
Also, I want the threat to be... threatening. Omnipresent and omniscient like the one in Race With The Devil maybe... and at least a bit bizarre.
The Brotherhood Of Satan (1977) works for me on that level. Despite the cultists themselves being kind of zany, their methods and goals are spooky and weird. Almost, but not quite, comical.
The Mephisto Waltz (1971) is another that works for me on the bizarre angle. Its cultists are weirdos and aim to do strange things with your body; similar to the cultists in The Skeleton Key (2005), Jug Face (2013), and Martyrs (2008).
It shouldn't be a group you could just run away from or tell the authorities about, but I'm fine if its victim profile specifically counts me out.
Martyrs cultists seem pretty normal, probably no threat at all as long as you're not a young woman. The happy island village of The Wicker Man (1973) would be a nice vacation spot so long as you're not a virgin.
Cults can be seductive though.
Given the choice of being sacrificed or joining the cults in The Wicker Man, The Ninth Gate (1999) and Spellbinder (1988) I don't think I'd have much difficulty. Generally, it's scarier for me if the cult remains a group I would NOT want to belong to. Groups like the ones depicted in Children of Sorrow (2012) or The Nameless.
The most recent cult movies I've seen have been Penumbra (2011), Ritual (2013), and The Invitation (2015). All of them ranked pretty high for me for different reasons.
Penumbra was just odd fun. The main protagonist isn't all that likeable while the cultists are kind of kooky but interesting. The cult isn't huge and we do get a lot of face time with them. While their details and motivations remain sketchy there is a sense of history to them. Like watching a class reunion, it comes across that these people have known each other for a while and none of the sinister goings-on are new to them. In this way they're similar to the cultists in Lord of Illusions (1995) who were like aging hippies returning to their summer of love.
Ritual appealed to me because its atmosphere. It's very successful at creating the atmosphere of being on the edge of some desert town late at night. It's cultists are very ordinary and their conversations swing easily between daily concerns and tales of previous year's rituals and hunts for victims. It's a bit of dark comedy in places and while it doesn't inspire paranoia or work on my fear of zealots it did build on the fear of falling foul of groups of strangers who might otherwise seem safe and friendly under. Like that moment when you find a body in the trunk of your neighbor's car. There are loads of other horror films that are similar to it... stuff like Kristy, Vacancy (2007), and Ils (2006)... which can be decent, probably scarier, but Ritual has a certain charm, it's gleefully gruesome in ways that most of those others lack.
The Invitation was the most recent of the cult films I've watched and, while fairly obvious in its movements, I really liked it. The script was refreshingly free of cliched nonsense like "Everything is going to be OK", the acting was a bit better than a lot of horror fare, and the final moments of the film go down in a surprisingly plausible way. The heroes are not action heroes and the villains are not omnicient, they're not even all that malevolent.
It's not really scary at all, but some moments are VERY tense and it left me ruminating on its creepier implications.
Again, it's not a paranoia movie bit it did hit me with the crazed zealot vibe, those smiling friends who just want to share their revelation with you. In fact even the 'normal' people in the movie were a bit too 'California' for me to be immediately comfortable with them. The cult itself remains mysterious and it's motivations are oddly friendly, like a new age weirdo trying to give you a hug you REALLY don't want. Good stuff.