The 10 Best Movies About Cults And Cult Leaders

The best cult movies include The Master, MidSommar, and The Wicker Man.

By Jonathan Klotz | Published

florence pugh

Cult movies are some of the most intense and dramatic films ever made, with the struggle to feel part of the group making it easy for anyone to fall under the sway of a charismatic leader. What makes them even more terrifying is knowing cults like these exist in real-life, including NIVXM, which famously recruited Alison Mack and Battlestar Galactica’s Grace Park. The films on this list run the gamut from realistic to fantastical, but one thing they all share is the lure of a better life, and we can all relate to that temptation.

10. The Source Family (2012)


Starting off the cult movie list is The Source Family, a documentary about Father Yod, a Marine in World War 2 that went to Hollywood as a stuntman and ended up founding a commune in the hills of Los Angeles. Teaching a philosophy based on natural life steeped in Western mysticism with just a dash of Sikh and Yoga, Father Yod was the spiritual leader for 150 people at the height of his popularity. The Source Family uses the group’s own home videos, audio recordings, photos, and interviews with the still-living members of the group.

Founded by the country’s first health food restaurant, which included John Lennon as a frequent customer, Father Yod allegedly kept 14 wives at the Source Family’s compound, eventually fathering three children with his followers. Though the cult movie goes into the doctrines of the group, parts are still secret today, but for the most part, there was an emphasis on clean living, organic diets, and living in a communal utopia. Of all the cults on this list, the Source Family is one of the tamest, despite being one of the most well-known American cults of the 20th century.

9. The Sacrament (2013)


A found-footage horror film, The Sacrament is a cult movie based on the famous Jonestown Massacre. Directed by TI West and starring Joe Swanberg, the film is an all-star collection of indie filmmaking with Eli Roth behind the scenes as the producer. Given the pedigree involved, it’s no surprise when the movie takes a horrifying turn and, with no demons, devils, or aliens involved, reveals how dangerous misguided people can be to one another.

Journalists go to the secluded location of a cult led by a genteel southern-sounding preacher named Father to try and rescue the sister of their friend, and since it’s a movie, nothing goes according to plan. As with all good cults, Father starts out sounding reasonable and friendly but slowly turns as his true nature is revealed. Given the tragic real-life cult that inspired the film, it’s not a spoiler that The Sacrament racks up an impressive body count before the credits roll.

8. Holy Smoke (1999)


Holy Smoke is the first cult movie on this list to have major stars, featuring Kate Winslet as a young woman that joined a cult while abroad and Harvey Keitel as the “deprogrammer” hired by her parents to get her out. The family intervention takes a dark turn as the brainwashing extent of Winslet’s character, Ruth, is seduced by Baba, an Indian guru. Diving into the isolation cult leaders use to retain power over their followers, Holy Smoke is a great deconstruction of herd behavior but also an erotic thriller, which is an odd mix.

Keitel’s character P.J. falls in love with Ruth and starts falling under her spell, just as she had Baba’s before the film started. It’s not clear how much of the behavior is PJ trying to reprogram Ruth and how much is legitimate, but the strange mixture of tones turned off audiences worldwide. Making slightly over $3 million worldwide, Holy Smoke is an interesting premise let down by lackluster execution.

7. Sound Of My Voice (2011)


Sound of My Voice is the first female-led cult movie on this list, featuring a husband and wife team of journalists trying to expose Maggie, a mysterious woman that claims to be a traveler from the future trying to save a small group of worthy humans. Played expertly by Brit Marling, Maggie seems on the surface to be either an actual time traveler or a crazy person, with evidence supporting either claim. Through it all, she remains calm, cool, and collected, as the film shows the journalists starting to believe.

Mostly shot in a sparse basement room, Sound of My Voice is an intelligent cult movie that doesn’t utilize horror, instead, it plays with tension and the agonizing tease of hope. Humans are social animals, and most of these films play with that need to be with others, to believe in something together, and to go through experiences together, but few of them end with the gut punch in Sound of My Voice.

6. The Invitation (2015)


Another in a string of small-scale cult movies, The Invitation is an intense study of group dynamics and social ties among people that are brought together years after a tragic accident. Will and his girlfriend Kira go to his ex-wife’s house to join their group of friends for a dinner party, where Eden, his ex, and her new husband David, explain the teachings of Dr. Joseph, leader of The Invitation. The uneasiness of a horrible dinner party that you want to leave hangs over the film, which doesn’t even need the cultish undercurrent to be unsettling.

Yet it’s definitely a cult movie and not one out in the jungle or with a leader that makes fanciful claims; it’s one steeped in human grief. The ultimate goal of the cult is revealed at the end and it’s terrifying in how easy it is to imagine the events of this film becoming real.

5. Midsommar (2019)



Midsommar is a different sort of cult movie, set in broad daylight with pretty flowers everywhere and a pleasant group of strange people that happen to be old-school pagans. Starring Florence Pugh and Will Poulter, this is considered to be one of the most disturbing horror films of all time, that managed, in 2019, to get theater-goers to leave showings vomiting in disgust over what they saw on screen.

The cult in this movie seems to be, on the surface, one of the more understandable ones depicted in a horror film, comprised mainly of individuals that wanted to escape modern life. The Pagans are also an excuse to examine the real horror of the film found in trying to escape a toxic relationship and facing the futility of modern life head-on. Scary, bloody, and likely to cause an existential crisis, Midsommar is worth watching.

4. Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011)


Featuring a star-making performance from Elizabeth Olsen, Martha Marcy May Marlene follows a young woman that escapes from a cult and seeks shelter with her sister and brother-in-law. As with Holy Smoke, the first half shows how a former cult member acclimates to regular society, but then the second half kicks in, showing why Martha wanted to leave the cult, and it’s a sudden turn into the darkness of falling under the sway of a charismatic leader. In this cult movie, it’s Patrick, played by John Hawkes, that holds Martha under his sway, and even if he’s not present, his influence is felt in every scene.

Martha Marcy May Marlene gets into the indoctrination rituals of a cult, sparing no details as the movie gets graphic in the second half. The horror of being stuck in a situation, even after no longer physically being held prisoner, permeates every moment. There’s a reason Elizabeth Olsen won acting awards in her breakthrough role, and rookie director Sean Durkin has been an in-demand name on the independent film circuit.

3. The Master (2012)


Philip Seymour Hoffman gave his greatest performance in this cult movie as Lancaster Dodd, leader of the Cause, a new religion with surface similarities to the origins of Scientology. Focusing on the relationship between Dodd and his chief acolyte, Freddie Quell, played by Joaquin Phoenix, The Master is the best depiction of the charismatic leader ever put to film. Within minutes of seeing him on screen, even knowing he’s a snake oil salesman, Hoffman’s Dodd is able to get the viewer to see his line of thinking.

Rising and falling periods of tension, as compared to other cult movies, which focus on the slow build of tension, make the film kinetic in a way unlike the rest on the list but yet also thoughtful and insightful. It’s clear from the beginning of The Master that Dodd is, as his sone explains, “making it up as he goes along,” but that’s not the point, it’s the raw charisma and ability to bend hundreds to his will that makes it a fascinating character study.

2. The Wicker Man (1973)


The original version of The Wicker Man is a cult movie reflecting the clash of Christianity and Paganism in the English countryside. Christopher Lee dominates the film as Lord Summerisle, one of his many magnetic villainous roles, leading the pagan cult that believes in human sacrifice to ensure a good harvest. As with the Nicolas Cage remake, it’s clear from the get-go that there’s something wrong with the people of the island, and amazingly, the movie even references how dense Edward Woodward’s Sgt. Neil Howie is by not picking up on all the clues.

In some ways, The Wicker Man is the most traditional cult movie on this list, discarding the politeness of Midsommar’s pagans but embracing how everyone is part of the new religion as a means of survival. If you’ve only ever seen the remake, check out the original, which has fewer jump scares and more creepy moments while still having something to say about the state of religion in 1970s England.

1. Rosemary’s Baby (1968)


Not just the best cult movie ever made, but one of the best movies ever, Rosemary’s Baby made a star out of Mia Farrow, and again, the viewer knows something is amiss, but how far this cult goes makes it stand out among the rest. After hallucinating an encounter with the literal Devil, while surrounded by her naked neighbors, Rosemary finds she’s pregnant. The film goes exactly where you think it will, but in this case, it’s not the destination that matters, it’s the journey.

Even then, at the very end, when the inevitable happens, a further twist elevates the film and makes this the most insidious cult movie of all time. Over the top, melodramatic, and yet at the same time, shockingly relatable, Rosemary’s Baby could be released today and still be a hit.

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