Society has an obsession with cults. From true crime documentaries and podcasts to going so far as to visit cult headquarters, there’s just something about people dedicating themselves to a person or figure that piques our collective morbid curiosity. Perhaps the most curious is the cult leader themself, someone who truly believes, or at least seems to truly believe, that they know how to achieve some kind of nirvana or access to a higher power. And of course, those figures have grabbed the imaginations of horror filmmakers for decades, becoming terrifying villains who summon monsters and slash flesh in the name of alleged salvation.
Such is the case with John Malum, the cult leader in Anthony DiBlasi’s new film Malum, a reimagining of his own film Last Shift. In the film, Malum, played with devilish glee by Chaney Morrow, delights in getting his flock to murder innocent people to feed the demon Paymon. And he has big plans for the film’s protagonist Jessica (Jessica Sula).
In honor of Malum‘s release on digital, we’re looking at more terrifying cult leaders in horror and the destruction they’ve wrought in the name of a higher power.
Mademoiselle in Martyrs
Anyone who’s seen Martyrs knows it is anything but an easy watch. Directed by Pascal Laugier, the film follows a young woman as she tries to get revenge on the cult that imprisoned and tortured her as a child. As the film unfolds and the body count rises, Laugier reveals that this cult, led by a woman simply known as Mademoiselle (Catherine Bégin), is looking for proof of life after death. So, they try to make martyrs out of young women to get the evidence they need that something else is out there.
Mademoiselle is perhaps one of the cruelest cult leaders in horror history due to the scale of the cult and the implications of just how insidious it is. Women are just fodder to be flayed alive, chained to walls, starved to death, and any other means of torture just to prove to the wealthy that there’s nothing to fear when you die. Mademoiselle’s calm demeanor and overall glamorous appearance as a rich older woman is disarming, which only adds to the terror she inspires in the hearts of anyone who braves this film.
Hjalmar Poelzig in The Black Cat
Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi go head to head in this very loose adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s classic story The Black Cat. It’s also perhaps one of the first horror films about cults and a deranged cult leader. Karloff plays the devious Hjalmar Poelzig, a Hungarian architect with a penchant for the Satanic. When a newlywed couple, their traveling companion Dr. Vitus Werdegast (Lugosi), and their servant Thamal travel to visit Poelzig, all become swept up in a revenge plot by Werdegast against Poelzig. But, that plan goes sideways when we learn that Poelzig leads a cult and the new bride is perfect fodder for their Satanic rites.
Jeremiah Sand in Mandy
Panos Cosmatos’ 2018 psychedelic journey through hell features one hell of a performance from Nicolas Cage as a man scorned by a cult called the Children of the New Dawn who kidnaps and eventually kills his true love Mandy (Andrea Riseborough). But the reason they kidnapped her? Their leader Jeremiah Sand (Linus Roache) saw Mandy and decided he had to have her. He embodies toxic masculinity and covets women’s bodies as his own, seeing them as playthings to drug and manipulate. Oh, and he has access to a gang of otherworldly beings who dress in leather and ride motorcycles.
Baba in Baskin
Turkish horror film Baskin is not to the faint of heart, but boy does it feature one of the most terrifying cult leaders in recent horror history. It also very much follows nightmare/dream logic which makes the cult’s actions all the more terrifying. Their leader, simply known as Baba (Mehmet Cerrahoglu), delights in violence, torturing a group of police officers in increasingly horrific ways. Blood orgy, anyone?
Ellen in Hereditary
Ok, so hear me out with this one. Even though we really never see Ellen, Annie Graham’s deceased mother in Hereditary, she is the grand orchestrator of the destruction of the Graham family in the name of Paimon. Everything we know about Ellen comes secondhand, either from Annie sharing in a grief group or through photo albums found after her death. But as Aster’s tale unfolds, we put together the pieces that this was all Ellen’s grand design. She most likely caused the deaths of her husband and son. She is the reason Charlie dies. Everything that happens to the Grahams is because of Ellen. That makes her one of the most terrifying cult leaders in horror history.
Father in “Safe Haven” from V/H/S/2
Timo Tjahjanto and Gareth Evans’ entry in V/H/S/2, “Safe Haven”, is one of the series’ best entries and most violent. A group of documentary filmmakers travels to Indonesia to infiltrate a cult named Paradise Gates and document what’s going on in their isolated compound. Led by a man simply known as Father (Epy Kusnandar), his cult is made up of men, women, and children dressed all in white who see him as their great leader. As the events very quickly spiral into hell, Father reveals himself to be Jim Jones on steroids, instructing his cult to kill themselves as the reckoning has arrived. He’s figured out how to truly bring Satan into this world and that fact alone is horrific.
Lord Summerisle in The Wicker Man (1973)
How could I not include Christopher Lee’s iconic Lord Summerisle on this list? Just look at this outfit. The wig, the props, the dance, he really has it all. Oh, and he also has a whole town in his pagan cult that was started by his grandfather. This cult is a little less sinister than others on this list, but even with their beautiful island, they do still perform human sacrifices to their pagan gods. This cult leader, and his cult, is perhaps one of the most famous in horror history.
Helena Markos in Suspiria (1977 and 2018)
Look, we could argue about the semantics between a cult and a coven until we’re blue in the face, but for this list, I’m including Helena Markos from both Suspiria films since I consider her group of witches a cult of sorts. Markos is Mater Suspiriorum, or the Mother of Sorrow, and uses the German dance school as a front for her cult with her cronies serving as teachers. Markos has a thirst for blood and will do anything to get it, including snapping a woman’s bones into tiny pieces.
Perhaps the thing I love most about Markos, besides being a monstrous woman in horror, is that her cult is exclusively women. Yes, they are still killing young girls and perpetuating terror. But we almost never see an exclusively female cult. Good for them.
Minnie and Roman Castevet in Rosemary’s Baby
Minnie and Roman Castevet (Ruth Gordon and Sidney Blackmer) at first appear to be your typical elderly neighbors who love to gossip and bring you little presents. But, little does Rosemary Woodhouse (Mia Farrow) that they’re coveting the fetus growing inside her. So often, cult leaders are shown to be younger, more conventionally attractive figures with magnetic personalities. But here, the Castevets are even more unassuming due to their age; how could they possibly mean anyone any harm? That’s what makes them so scary. They hide in plain sight, orchestrating the drugging and rape of a woman so she can carry the Devil’s child and ultimately birth the Antichrist. It’s a story we’ve seen time and time again, but Rosemary’s Baby and the Castevets do it best.
Malum is available to rent and own now on digital.
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