If there is one thing that can give me nightmares, it’s a truly scary occult horror.
Portrayed in many forms, using various tools to hail devil and his wicked designs, occultism has inspired many fantastic horrors. Undoubtedly, there is something eerie and blood-curdling in devil sacrifices and people fanatically hailing demons from ancient books. Far more disturbing than zombie apocalypse or killers swinging their chainsaws.
In order to praise this fantastic motif, which often returns to horror films, I have compiled a list of 12 truly scary, strangely nightmarish films.
12. Society (1989)
Dir. Brian Yuzna
I decided to start with Brian Yuzna’s “Society” here. It’s one of these kitschy cult gems that I remember from my childhood. The film tells the story of a boy, who discovers that his family belongs to a cult. Their main occupation is drawing life essence from ritualistic orgies, where they consume innocent strangers.
Considering all its cheesiness, the last scene of bodies moulded in a disgusting ritual is actually both creepy and grotesque. Just to see this one sequence (which lasts for almost half an hour), you should give it a try.
11. The Blair Witch Project (1999)
Dir. Daniel Myrick, Eduardo Sanchez
This is my childhood right here.
The all-time record-breaker in terms of “budget investment”, this extremely low-budget gem has started a completely new way of thinking about horrors – “found footage”.
Most importantly, it has reimagined the topic of cults. The audience follows a group of aspiring filmmakers, who want to explore the legend of a deadly witch, who’s killing people in the local woods. Although we never get to see any monster or gory images, the film’s original approach has been shocking when it came out. It was a pioneer found footage and a chilling exploration of dark magic.
10. The Love Witch (2016)
Dir. Anna Biller
“The Witch” has been in works for years, with Anna Biller working on almost every frame to make it look astonishing.
The effect is a film incredibly passionate when it comes to the execution. The story follows a modern day witch, who uses her witchcraft to lure men to her place and consume their powers. It’s not particularly a cult that we’re discussing here, but “The Witch” reaches to many occult symbols and rituals to strengthen its credibility as a terrifying, gorgeously shot horror.
9. Starry Eyes (2014)
Dir. Kevin Kolsch, Dennis Widmyer
The core of “Starry Eyes” is the numbing transformation of the film’s protagonist. A fragile girl with big dreams, who turns into a vessel for a demon.
This entire transformation takes place I”thanks to” a weird Hollywood creme de la creme cult. The occultism is introduced here in reference to a conspiracy theory that Hollywood is run by a strange organization (kind of like the Court of Owls from Batman comic books). The main character is entangled in their ritualistic deeds and the way it happens is pretty much… disgusting.
“Starry Eyes” takes time to roll its wheels, but once it reaches its full form, the film becomes a terrifying experience.
8. Alucarda (1977)
Dir. Juan Moctezuma
“Alucarda” is a Mexican horror movie from the 70s. Its protagonist is a dark-haired girl, who is most likely possessed by some strange dark spirits. She joins a convent, where her presence causes people to get literally mad.
Moctezuma’s film is one of the most profound indie gems about occultism. It has this strange, vintage mood of the VHS era. It didn’t age in the best way possible, but there are scenes, which give goosebumps. My personal favorite is the one where a devilish goat-man appears. My God.
7. The Endless (2018)
Dir. Justin Benson, Aaron Moorhead
Although “The Endless” is not a horror, it creates such a dense, unnerving atmosphere that it eventually becomes cold-to-the-bone frigthening.
The film depicts the story of two brothers raised in a cult. Ten years after they have escaped, they decide to visit the old camp.
As the story unfolds, “The Endless” becomes more and more puzzling – the main characters falter in the labyrinth of deceptive lies and events they cannot neither comprehend nor rationally explain. There are moments of sheer brilliance in the film, which also takes an interesting stand in favor (kind of at least) of the cult. It doesn’t condemn the cult commune, which is a novelty for a film touching this topic.
6. The Heretics (2017)
Dir. Chad Archibald
This Canadian horror hasn’t been given much love since its premiere, but don’t listen to the haters (yep, I said it).
The film centers on a very direct body transformation of a young girl, whose being held in a cabin by a very shady guy.
What makes it stand out is the very detailed, meticulously designed disintegration of the girl’s body. In an almost Cronenbergian style, the director Chad Archibald destroys his protagonist piece by piece, turning her into a disgusting, slimy cocoon. It’s super gross, but once it adds all of the occult elements, it gets actually scary.
5. The Witch (2015)
Again, it’s not the direct occultism that plays its role here. However, Robert Eggers brings all of the dark forces to make his eerie indie gem work.
A family in the 17th century brings to its farm a black sheep called Black Phillip. Since the moment the animal is brought to the farm, the family is tormented in the most vicious ways imaginable.
The mood of “The Witch” is incredibly ominous and scary. Eggers throws in a good portion of occultism and witchcraft, all of that spiced up by the god-fearing peasants and their complete subordination to the God’s will. It’s one of these films that is so hauntingly realistic, it almost reaches out from the screen with its ghastly hand to suck you into it.
4. The Holy Mountain (1973)
Dir. Alejandro Jodorowsky
“The Holy Mountain” is a profound surreal experience. Probably the best there is out there.
The film portrays a journey to the titular destination – a place of wonders and ever-existence.
It’s hard to categorise this film as a horror (to be fair, its hard to categorise it at all), but it definitely does possess enough up its sleeve to scare the **** out of you.
It’s a film, which explores the ins and outs of Christianity, using a plethora of symbols, references and even direct quotes form the Bible. It’s also vividly directed and becomes so mind-boggling over the time that you find yourself completely shocked.
3. Hereditary (2018)
Dir. Ari Aster
The best horror f 2018 is also a fantastic example of a film, which – alas not entirely – derives its power from occultism. The story follows a broken family, which soon after tragedy strikes them, become vulnerable to strange and disturbing events.
“Hereditary” works on so many levels that it’s just ridiculously good. It’s mostly a psychological thriller, but it gained a place on this list thanks to its final sequence.
An uplifting, eerie soundtrack, a shrine made in a tree house and a whole lot of creepiness mixed with graphic imagery is what causes this scene to resonate with extreme horror.
2. Kill List (2011)
Dir. Ben Wheatley
A horror film that showcases the most horrid, obscurely repelling form of a cult. Although the cult-themed part arrives only at the end of this engrossing movie, it is worth waiting for. In a strangely satisfying way.
The film follows a hitman, who takes a very strange job. A job that requires him to follow his target to a cult’s gathering.
The success of “Kill List” is based on the fact that the protagonist is not a fragile, scarred being. On the contrary, he’s a blood-curdling hitman, a man whose hands are dripping with blood. Imagine what it must take to break such a man and – to answer the question that is hanging here – he does break.
1. The Wicker Man (1973)
Dir. Robin Hardy
You’ll probably familiar with the “Not the bees!” scene, where Nicolas Cage tries to escape from CGI’ed bees. Why do I bother, watch it here.
But the original “Wicker Man” is nothing like that. It’s a nightmarish portrayal of an absolutely deranged cult. There are people dressed in animal heads, there are brutal murders and incredibly moody soundtrack. It’s a movie-pioneer among the occult horrors, as well as one that has defined all of the films that came after it.
It’s rad, so beware.
Update – Honourable mentions
When I first made that list, a few movies didn’t make it to the top 12 because – I either watched them later or they didn’t have a premiere yet. An expanded version of this list should include, among others: the Netflix Original “Apostle” thanks to its brooding atmosphere, an indie flick “Pyewacket” (for its powerful leading performance), and a fantastic Irish movie “A Dark Song”.