Religious cults can range from Jonestown to Scientology. Some would even lump in Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, as well as ministries like Jerry Falwell or Garner Ted Armstrong. I guess the distinction is in the eye of the follower.
The new film “Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul.” got us thinking about films with an edgy religious theme — religious groups that have strayed from the “norms of society.”
So we turned to TasteofCinema.com for a sampling of films that look at religious cults:
10) “Elmer Gantry” (1960) — Richard Brook’s masterpiece gives us Elmer (Burt Lancaster), a boozy salesman who used his biblical knowledge to weasel his way into Sister Sharon Falconer’s (Jean Simmons) congregation. His charm and salesmanship make him the perfect leader for her devout followers.
9) “The Devils” (1971) — Ken Russell’s controversial film was based on Aldous Huxley’s book “The Devils of Loudun.” Set in 17th-century plague-ridden France, the head nun of a local convent becomes sexually obsessed with the priest; however, when she learns that he has been married, she decides to accuse him of bewitching her and all her sisters with devils. A witch-hunter comes to town to perform exorcisms, but it doesn’t end well.
8) “Martha Marcy May Marlene” (2011) — The film begins with Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) calling her sister (Sarah Paulson) asking for help. Martha has been living in a self-sufficient community in the Catskill Mountains, where she was known as Marcy May. As a result of Martha’s faulty memory and hallucinations, it is at times unclear whether what she relates actually happened or not.
7) “Savage Messiah” (2002) — This one is based on the Roch “Moïse” Thériault commune in Canada. Paula (Polly Walker) is a social worker whose investigation brings her face-to-face with the real Roch (Luc Picard). She observes as the tight-knit community starts to crumble, causing his “physical and psychological abuse to grow into an all-consuming whirlwind.”
6) “Suspiria” (1977) — Dario Argento’s most famous film centers around a dance academy in Germany. Arriving at night, an American student witnesses someone running away from the school, and the next morning she discovers a series of unfortunate events have occurred there. Little does she realize, the ballet academy is a front for a coven of witches.
5) “Eyes Wide Shut” (1999) — In Stanley Kubrick’s off-kilter masterpiece, Bill (Tom Cruise) and Alice (Nicole Kidman) are a married couple going through midlife crises. Bill’s wife fantasizes about other men, so he takes her to a strange estate with strange people wearing masks. Can this marriage be saved?
4) “Santa Sangre” (1989) — Alejandro Jodorowsky’s surreal-thriller lets us trace the life of Fenix from an insane asylum back to his traumatic childhood. His mother was the leader of the cult Santa Sangre (“Holy Blood”), whose members worshipped an armless girl who was raped as their patron saint. Fenix believes she should be revenged.
3) “The Master” (2012) — In Paul Thomas Anderson’s roman à clef, Scientology takes a thumping. After Freddie (Joaquin Phoenix) is dismissed from the Navy for psychological reasons, he drifts around until he becomes involved with Lancaster (played by the late Philip Seymour Hoffman), who is the head of a religious group named “The Cause.”
2) “Rosemary’s Baby” (1968) — Roman Polanski’s Oscar-winner is one of the most well-known films about a cult ever made. Rosemary (Mia Farrow) and Guy (John Cassavetes) move into a New York City apartment where they meet their eccentric neighbors and a strange circle of friends. All seems fine until Rosemary get pregnant. That’s when she learns the Devil will have his due.
1) “The Wicker Man” (1973) — Sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward) goes to a small Scottish island to investigate a letter he received about a missing child. When Howie meets Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee), he learns more than he wants to know about their Pagan traditions of death and sacrifice.
Other films that might have made this list include “Don’t Deliver Us From Evil,” “The Blood on Satan’s Claw,” and “Holy Smoke!”
However, my favorite remains Steve Martin’s “Leap of Faith,” a comedy about a tent-show revivalist who is running a scam. Pass the collection plate and say hallelujah!