Folk horror has seen a resurgence thanks to Ari Aster’s Midsommar and Robert Eggers’ The Witch. Cult horror often stems from this place or at least runs parallel to it. I’m not talking about the cool Cult of Personality type groups, more the stabby, controlling kind. Groups that brainwash their victims into thinking they are into torture and abuse are scary. They play on everyone’s worst fear, loss of control. Cults, in particular, are a sweet spot between the supernatural and the natural world. As scary as monsters are, humans are even scarier. There are a ton of horror movies that feature cults. Without counting the glut of cheesy satanic panic films from the ’70s and ’80s there are many that are worth seeing. In no particular order here are the best horror movies with killer cults.
This Netflix original is far better than you think it will be. When a man finds his sister has been taken by a religious cult he infiltrates the group and finds there are things more insidious than even evil. This is an engrossing movie that is heavy on atmosphere and tension. It doesn’t totally stick the landing but the first three-fourths are so good you can forgive the indulgent conclusion.
The Sound Of My Voice
Two skeptical documentarians seek to debunk a charismatic cult leader who claims she is from the future. They instead fall under her sway. I mourned the day The OA was canceled and any chance to see Zal Batmanglij and Brit Marling in action I am down for. If you liked the ambiguousness of The OA, The Sound of My Voice will fill that void. You can easily see elements of the writing partner’s later projects in this work from 2011. It is unexplainable, bizarre, and strangely moving. Those things alone are enough to warrant a place on the list.
Martha Marcy May Marlene
Haunted by memories of her time in an abusive cult a young girl loses her grip on reality. The leader of the aforementioned cult John Hawkes is everything a cult leader is expected to be. He is magnetic, charismatic, and marrow-deep disturbing. Elizabeth Olsen as the titled character is vulnerable and troubled. This is perhaps one of the more realistic imaginings of cult horror as the trauma of what M has endured is where the fear resonates from. It is very reminiscent of some of the best Hitchcockian stories. Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean someone isn’t out to get you.
The game turned movie franchise is straight horror. A young mother is desperate to find her daughter who becomes lost in a strange and terrible world. The cult of religious fanatics at the heart of Silent Hill are as scary as they come and that’s saying something considering Pyramid Head and undead nurses hang out in the cursed town. In large part that is due to Alice Krieg the Borg Queen herself from the Star Trek Franchise who is the cult’s rigid leader. The magnitude of amazing imagery and monster development is staggering.
The technicolor masterpiece that is Ari Aster’s follow up to Hereditary is as pretty as it is horrific. In the wake of a family tragedy, Dani travels with her boyfriend, a gaslighting douchebag and their buddies to an idyllic Scandinavian village where a cult of pagan worshipers dole out more than just pickled herring. It’s weird, trippy, and gorgeous. The cult performs some pretty inventive kills as well. Surprisingly, in between the Blood Eagles and gore, there is a fair amount of humor thanks in large part to Will Poulter.
This blast from the ’80s past stars Martin Sheen as a psychiatrist who must protect his son from a cult of child sacrificing Brujeria. It shares some of the same infrastructure as Rainbow and the Serpent as it’s part crime procedural and part voodoo hinkiness and has a few scenes that are just as shocking despite being nearly 40 years old. The spider scene, in particular, is worth its weight in horror dipped gold.
The Wicker Man
It goes without saying I’m referring to the original and not the Nic Cage debacle. A policeman investigates the disappearance of a young girl who a town full pf pagans insist never exist. If you say cult or folk horror this is likely the film that first comes to mind for many reasons. First, if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, everyone must love this film. Second, Edward Woodward and Christopher Lee are outstanding. Lastly, the entire production from cinematography by Harry Waxman, soundtrack by Paul Giovanni, and direction by Robin Hardy are impeccable.
Two brothers who escaped a UFO death cult decades ago are lured back in by an enigmatic message. Once back in the community they are forced to confront the unexplainable. Directors Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson are geniuses in my opinion and they are the freshest voices in genre story-telling right now. It is thoughtful, disturbing, and deeply moving. It is the kind of movie-watching experience you remember.
A man’s and his wife are abducted by a cult of ruthless killers. When the woman is killed, the mild-mannered man goes on a one-man revenge quest. The Panos Cosmatos driven, Nic Cage fueled psychedelic freak fest is one of the craziest, most amazing things you will ever see. There are drugged up demon bikers, freaky-deaky cults, and Nic Cage in a chainsaw fight. This is what happens when Cage is allowed to indulge his every whim and go full buckwild. When it’s all over there are so many questions. We’ve got you covered on all things Gnosticism, Abraxus, and demon bikers.
The ickiness of director Roman Polanski aside, Rosemary’s Baby is a classic. You can’t have the Best Horror Movies With Killer Cults without adding the granddaddy of all female condition stories. Rosemary is in way over her head as the pregnant young woman begins to suspect the baby she is carrying may not be human. Of course, Polanski would be able to so perfectly capture a world where men control women through pregnancy, isolation, and Hell powers.
A group of mysterious hooded group members infests a minimally staffed hospital where a police officer is being treated. It’s the one Lovecraftian film on the list and easily the wildest. You don’t often see these two subgenres together. Directors and writers Jeremy Gillispie and Steven Kostanski swing for the fences and mostly succeed in this highly ambitious film. The creatures are exactly as one would expect and it gets high marks for creativity. I’m a sucker for Eldritch Terror, what can I say?
Children Of The Corn
Proving cults leaders aren’t all adults these kids pack a nasty wallop and wield a fierce scythe. A couple gets stranded in Gatlin, Nebraska and are hunted by a cult of killer kids. One of the classics, this spooky Stephen King short story turned film has one of the all-time best Big Bads the cult is worshiping. If creepy kids aren’t enough, He Who Walks Behind The Rows is terrifying. Even Terminator’s Linda Hamilton has a hard time escaping those meddling kids.
Carol Anne and her family move to a new home only to find they haven’t left their supernatural troubles behind them. The second film in the franchise is by no means the best, but the preacher of the undead church Kane is deeply unsettling. Julian Beck who died shortly after the film’s release delivered a hollow-eyed tour de force performance that makes the film palatable. Forget the rest and just watch him, he was that good.
While attending a strange dinner party a man begins to question that his ex-wife and new husband may have sinister motives for the gathering. Karyn Kusama’s slow burner is a testament to less is more. The plot is tightly constructed and the acting is perfectly understated. That combination along with Kusama’s direction makes one moody chiller. It’s smart and ultimately shocking. This is an intimate film with wide sweeping relatability. Watch for the effectively delivered twist.
This brutal example of The New French Extreme is arguably a tough watch. Pascal Laugier’s nauseating vision is a study in human endurance. Sorrow and pain encapsulate every moment of this unsparing film. As hard as this film is to get through it makes a number of lists including the Top 30 Movies Every Woman Should Watch because it is unapologetically vicious and the cult in question is so wildly disturbing in their utter rationale.
A family dealing with tragedy begins to believe there is something besides sorrow stalking them. It is difficult to quantify this film in any discernible way. It is raw emotion on screen. Between the pain and anger is sheer insanity. Whether you are a literalist and believe there is a Paimon worshipping cult, you think Liftoach Pandemonium is a party trick, or see only simple mental illness, Ari Aster’s breakout hit is a well-crafted, well-acted, and well-shot horror classic.
A hitman takes a job promising big bucks but finds only the heart of darkness in this British thriller. Kill List starts out as a hitman drama and takes a hard right turn into cultville. Ben Wheatley’s most impressive film to date is as intense as it is unexpected. The naked(yes Hereditary fans, more naked cultists) cult members pursuing our protagonists deliver some of the most memorable cult scenes of the 2000’s.
Lord Of Illusions
A private detective is hired to protect a magician who fears he is being stalked by a cult who may or may not have given him magical gifts. This film deserves a mention on the Best Horror Movies With Killer Cults list for a handful of reasons. One, Scott Bakula plays the hero very well. Phillip Swann played by Kevin O’Connor is pure manic energy, and author Clive Barker’s underappreciated tale is a perfect story arch. The final sequence is madness. I saw this film as a kid and the ending has stuck with me.
Eyes Wide Shut
A doctor embarks on a harrowing journey of self-discovery and sexuality after his wife reveals a horrible secret. I can hear the eye rolls from here, but Stanley Kubrick’s psycho-sexual thriller is a prime example of his signature visual style. The bizarre, oppressive cult in question is less sexy than creepy but that is the point. Ignore the terrible chemistry between then spouses Tom Cruise and Nichole Kidman and ficus on the cult. They are entitled, dangerous elites and totally know it.
House Of The Devil
A college student takes a babysitting job on the night of a lunar eclipse only to realize she may have agreed to be more than a sitter. Ti West’s satanic cult film is a bit polarizing. I personally love it and think the campiness of the ’80s homage compliments the slow burn atmospheric film well. If you like a good throwback with enough scares for a horror lover, and great garden variety devil worshipers House of the Devil is for you,
There are a few others I could have mentioned like the segment Safe Haven in V/H/S II that is as frightening as it gets, and The Sacrament another Ti West film, but these are my favorites. With The Other Lamb, a cult horror film set to premiere on April 3rd, I’ve got cults on my brain. No, that is not an invitation, so back off cult dudes. The only robes I’m interested in are the ones hanging pink and fluffy in my bathroom. Have I left off any of your Best Horror Movies With Killer Cults? Let me know and check out all our other lists including lists for Tubi and Shudder.
As the Managing Editor for Signal Horizon, I love watching and writing about genre entertainment. I grew up with old-school slashers, but my real passion is television and all things weird and ambiguous. My work can be found here and Travel Weird, where I am the Editor in Chief.