By Holly Thicknes
No, I’m not going to talk to you about the “wonders” of Napoleon Dynamite, or which Tarantino film is the greatest. I’m talking about cult films; films about cults.
Cults are often examined in cinema as they are still, to this day, shrouded with mystery, making them the perfect backdrop for a thriller but also for talking about the disenfranchised in society. Particularly in America, where cults are still prevalent and are ingrained into the American psyche, following the Moonies and the Jonestown massacre, the subject isn’t by any means an old one.
Below are Girls on Film’s top 5 Cult Films:
Rosemary’s Baby, 1968
It is the contention present in Rosemary’s Baby between religion and sacrilege, faith and doubt, God and the Devil, that disempowers Rosemary (Mia Farrow) and leads to her being the subject of an abominable, Satanic plot. Her Catholic upbringing, which instilled the fear of shame in her from a young age and comes back to her in nightmarish flashes that threaten the present, makes her not only the most susceptible victim for corrupting her womb with the child of the Devil, but the most sadistic choice, liable to do the most damage to the idea of faith. Here, the draw of power dictates the actions of this group of New Yorkers, happy to do the devil’s bidding for their own gain.
Mia Farrow, more than just playing Rosemary, plays innocence. Her iconic look in the film (doe-eyed, baby-haired, baby doll dress-wearing) is only a vulgar exaggeration of the fact: the symbolism is present in her naivety as those around her attempt to manipulate her. It is present in the sinister walls of the New York apartment block, and the weighted words of the odd neighbours. It is present in the perversion of her natural body.
Polanski’s classic horror film really evokes the powerlessness that Cultism can instigate in the individual – a powerlessness that multiplies when applied to a young pregnant woman. A sadistic nightmare for any female.
The Master, 2012
Paul Thomas Anderson’s take on a group of people involved with a cult (‘The Cause’ led by ‘The Master’, Francis Seymour Hoffman in post WWII America), is an extremely masculine one, to the point where it feels forcibly so. Masculine it its obsession with leads Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix as Freddie Quell – drunk veteran muscle and the Master’s prodigy – and their characters as egotistical leader and violent wounded soldier respectively. Masculine in its painstaking command of ever shot which each resemble 50s American paintings, reflecting the conservative control of The Cause and subordination of the Adam’s-rib style women (Amy Adams and Laura Dern feature as such) in it. Masculine in its obvious reverence of the skills of Anderson and visual self-reference to There Will Be Blood, his Oscar-nominated previous film.
It is this kind of proud auteur filmmaking that oozes, to me, the result of the impenetrable control of a male dominated industry and, subsequently, reinforces masculine and feminine stereotypes. But there is no better modern personification of Cultism, specifically because of this self-reflective premise, than The Master. It is an utterly bonkers ride, but nevertheless brings to light all the social implications of control, and for that reason is an honest story.
Martha Marcy May Marlene, 2011
Identity being one of the things you must relinquish to be part of a cult, the title of Martha Marcy May Marlene is apt. The film is still, sinister and unassuming in its deviant exploration of the names given to the protagonist, played faultlessly by Elizabeth Olsen. She is what is projected onto her: an avatar with fluctuating identity. Her disenfranchisement stretches far beyond the confines of the cult and into her past and future, pre and post group.
And with its focus on disenfranchisement, of all films that talk about cults, MMMM normalises the stigma, or mystery, the most. It seems like in a society structured in a centres-and-margins way, falling off kilter isn’t so unbelievable at all, and the film takes pains to show this. It takes us back on a trail of the protagonist’s abuse in order to exemplify how moments of weakness can be manipulated.
Riley Stearn’s modern classic, in which an ex-authority on cults is hired by bereft parents to bring back their radicalised daughter, really is the true heir to Rosemary’s Baby, but in which the gender balance of power is reversed. Again, the power structures of the sexes are played with to an end (both within and without the film world). Leeland Orser plays Angus: an utterly de-masculinised man unable to attain even the smallest scrap of power.
But it is Mary Elizabeth Winstead – the director’s wife – who steals the show. She bewitches not only Leeland but the audience, too. Her supposed vulnerability and status as mislead daughter evaporates at her will. Unlike Rosemary, the power she wields in insurmountable by abstract constructs such as religion or husbandhood. A whole film goes by before we realise that the whole premise has merely been a chess game played by her.
The Wicker Man, 1973
The ladies in The Wicker Man are bewitching nymphs. Their power lies in their physicality; their dancing bodies. The film is essentially a surreal dance which Sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward), hired to find an allegedly missing girl on a tiny island in Scotland, is unable to mould into a logical, linear narrative for his detecting purposes.
With its mockery of classically masculine traits, The Wicker Man is really an attack on gender binaries, personified beautifully by Christopher Lee, the chief of the cult participating in this sacrificial offering. There are no female ‘characters’ as such, but as films that centre on cults have shown us time and time again, identity is relinquished for the sake of the over-arching blanket of the cult, coven, community or society that binds these people together. Perhaps that’s why cult films meld so well with horror – the idea of being controlled and offering up your personality being such a horrific one – and also address gender politics so naturally.
May 7, 2016