In terms of fanfare for a debut novel, it would be hard to top the praise thus far leveled at Emma Cline’s The Girls, which hits bookshelves Tuesday, June 14. An adventurous and precocious youngster, Cline won The Paris Review’s Plimpton Prize in 2014 at age twenty-five, which led to a three-book deal and fawning kudos for this first one from no fewer than two Pulitzer Prize-winning authors, Richard Ford (Independence Day) and Jennifer Egan (A Visit From the Goon Squad) — plus millennial spokeswoman Lena Dunham (who grabbed the “Girls” title first). The California-bred Cline built her fictionalized The Girls narrative around the real-life nature of the Manson Family and the cult’s appeal to lonely, unseen girls at the turbulent end of the 1960s in Northern California. The novel centers on one teenager’s growing fascination with an older girl who invites her to a rundown ranch where the rituals and manipulations of a charismatic leader inexorably drive the girls toward violence. A potential feature-film version is already in the reliable hands of producer Scott Rudin, who has shepherded Oscar-winning adaptations “The Hours,” “No Country for Old Men,” and “The Social Network.”
Cults — and the mysterious cocktail of personality traits and psychic wounds that causes some susceptible humans to lose their common sense and moral center — are of perpetual interest to writers and filmmakers since they offer inquiry into the dangerous extremes of human need and connection. Nonfiction books such as Jon Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith and Tim Reiterman’s Raven: The Untold Story of Rev. Jim Jones and His People provide such insights, while “The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” and Chuck Palahniuk’s Survivor take more pop-culture-driven, satirical approaches. Here, we’ve listed ten of our favorite movies and TV series that look into cults or other fringe groups (which often have some religious underpinning) and their peculiar appeal. Technically, there are a few spoilers included, so tread carefully.
1. “Martha Marcy May Marlene” (2011)
The writing-directing debut of Sean Durkin, this dark indie drama introduced future Avenger Elizabeth Olsen as a young woman struggling to adjust to a normal life after the psychological trauma of spending three years in a cult. Durkin based his depiction of the group’s rituals and rules on some of the well-known cults of the ’60s and ’70s, as well as interviews with those who had spent time in smaller present-day cults around New England. As a result, he does an artful job of illustrating the mundane in the madness and how an extreme reality can feel like a nagging, disorienting dream long after it’s over. And John Hawkes is perfect as the slithery, sinister leader who seduces, manipulates, and re-names her.
2. “Sound of My Voice” (2011)
That same year, writer-actress Brit Marling and writer-director Zal Batmanglij delivered this science fiction-inflected indie drama about a filmmaking couple that infiltrates a Los Angeles cult presided over by a woman who claims to have been sent back from a destroyed future. Batmanglij and Marling both had personal exposure to such fringe groups in the L.A. area, so they were able to invest the leader Maggie’s disciples with realistic reasons and weak spots that she could exploit with her aggressive, manipulative charm. There is uneasiness throughout, as the story plays out in ways that make us start to wonder, as the protagonists do, whether Maggie may actually be what she says she is.
3. “Ticket to Heaven” (1981)
Josh Freed’s 1981 expose Moonwebs: Journey Into the Mind of a Cult was the source material for this drama co-written and directed by Ralph L. Thomas. A bright young man goes looking for a friend in San Francisco and ends up seduced by the same cult, until his own friends and family kidnap and try to deprogram him. Based on the real story of a member of Rev. Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church, the film draws its power from its precise depiction of the techniques used to recruit and reprogram, and how they could be brought to bear on almost anyone.
4. “The Wicker Man” (1973)
Anthony Shaffer (“Sleuth,” “Frenzy”) wrote this infamous folk-horror classic, which details the efforts of a devout Scottish police sergeant to discover exactly what happened to a girl who went missing in a remote island village. There, he is shocked to encounter strange rituals, brazen sexual iconography, and the specter of human sacrifice as the villagers deny that the girl ever existed. David Pinner’s 1967 novel Ritual: Murder, Witchcraft and Paganism in a Cornish Village inspired the spooky, silly story, which features one of the horror genre’s great endings.
5. “The Leftovers” (2014)
The plot of Tom Perrotta’s 2011 novel, and the HBO series based on it, serves up not one, not two, butthree cult or cult-like organizations, which sprout up in the aftermath of the inexplicable disappearance of two percent of the world’s population, an event named the Sudden Departure. The disturbed citizens of small-town Mapleton find whatever ways they can to cope, which for some means joining one of several fringe groups — most notably the Guilty Remnant, whose members take a vow of silence, wear white clothing, and chain smoke as a way to proclaim their faith.
6. “The Devil Rides Out” (1968)
Satanic cults get a lot of play in the blood-soaked fields of the horror genre, and this Hammer Films creeper is a great example. In 1930s England, two men try to extricate their younger buddy from the clutches of the evil, Devil-worshiping cult leader Mocata, who sets loose all kinds of dark diabolical juju in response. Sci-fi and fantasy author-screenwriter Richard Matheson (“I Am Legend”) penned the script, which is inspired by the 1934 novel by Dennis Wheatley, who had input from occult master Aleister Crowley (Mocata is based on him). The film’s greatest asset is Christopher Lee, who also plays a major, though more sinister, part in “Wicker Man.”
7. “Martyrs” (2008)
A grueling moviegoing experience, even for seasoned horror fans, Pascal Laugier’s gory, unrelenting thriller at first seems to be following a somewhat standard path, with a traumatized, paranoid woman seeking revenge on the people who she says kidnapped and tortured her as a child. That we doubt her (as her best friend does) is betrayal enough. But the truth that ultimately unfolds is breathtaking in its cruelty and originality, as those behind the unfathomable degradations finally reveal their spiritual purpose.
8. “Rosemary’s Baby” (1968)
Roman Polanski’s American breakthrough, based on the 1967 Ira Levin novel, is disturbing for all kinds of reasons, not least the fact that poor Rosemary’s own husband is colluding with the evil forces at work around her. But the worst of it may be how effectively the chiller illustrates how a fragile woman can be made to doubt herself and her instinctual misgivings through the systematic pressure and manipulation of a larger group, in this case a coven of cultists hoping to birth Satan’s spawn (using Rosemary’s body).
9. “The Seventh Victim” (1943)
Oscar-nominated “Peyton Place” director Mark Robson helmed this noir-horror hybrid starring future Oscar winner Kim Hunter (“A Streetcar Named Desire”), who makes her debut as a young woman in search of the missing sister who may be wrapped up in a New York City satanic cult. The Greenwich Village setting allows for loads of literary characters and references, including a Death-inflected quote from a John Donne poem that foreshadows the film’s bleak ending.
10. “The Master” (2012)
This meditation on man’s animal nature and the manipulations of the mind from writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson is patently inspired by L. Ron Hubbard and Scientology, which many consider more a cult than a religion (a debate addressed directly in the film). In its depiction of how the charismatically self-confident Master (Philip Seymour Hoffman) takes in the lost, alcoholic war vet Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) and gives him new, if confused, purpose, the story sympathetically illuminates just how hungry we all are for answers, even when we know deep down that what we’re swallowing may be just as arbitrary as the rest of life seems to be. For a more literal analysis of the cultlike aspects of Scientology, there’s Lawrence Wright’s 2013 book, Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief,and Alex Gibney’s 2015 companion HBO documentary.
(Signature-reads.com, June 14, 2016)
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