Satanic Sunday: Cults devoted to the Devil

Cloaked in hooded robes, hell-bent on destruction and ready to sacrifice innocents to please their master- worshipers of the Devil are an easy bunch to stereotype in popular portrayals. Ranked from worst to best, the extent to which they work with or against cliché and manage to be entertaining on film is profiled in the following list. This discussion does contain some spoilers!

Daniel Stamm's "The Last Exorcism"
Daniel Stamm’s “The Last Exorcism”

The Last Exorcism (2010)

The Last Exorcism builds upon the skepticism of its main character, a man who performs exorcisms to give religious zealots peace of mind and as a social service to prevent any real harm to people accused of being possessed. The alleged possession and abuse of a timid country girl occupies most of the film, with a cult showing up in its final frenzied moments. Keeping the characters involved with this cult a secret, it can still be said that their participation (and the subsequent exoneration of others) is a shock. The violence and gruesome depiction of sacrifice declares that this movie isn’t messing around about beliefs. Although Daniel Stamm’s The Last Exorcism exploits the overused dangerous country bumpkin trope, the slow ascension to action and the dissection of what people are capable of when they blindly follow doctrine is enough to spice up the genre and keep you guessing as to what powers are truly at play.

Rufus Sewell in "Bless the Child"
Rufus Sewell in “Bless the Child”

Bless the Child (2000)

Rufus Sewell (Dark City, The Illusionist) brings his dark, slightly off-kilter looks to the part of Eric Stark, a new age guru whose wealth and influence make him a formidable foe for the soft-spoken and kind Maggie O’Connor (Kim Basinger). Maggie has been guardian to her niece since her drug-addled sister abandoned her 6 six years ago. The protection of this “special child” from Stark’s rapid cult that wants to utilize her for their gain is poor to say the least, with the girl almost instantly falling into the hands of Sewell. He tries to convince her to use her burgeoning powers to do evil with an increasing frustration at her hesitation that perhaps should have been directed less seriously- as the maniac moments that we see contain sparks of a more inspired project.  From setting a homeless man on fire to tempting her to fly off of a rooftop- scenes involving Sewell and the child are exponentially better than the rest of the film in which the good characters continuously make a litany of poor decisions. Maggie’s cooing and pleading for the kid makes you wish to see more of the behind the scenes madness- glimpses of demons at play and roving gangs of the sociopathic children under Stark’s employ. A milky-eyed, snarl-mouthed young boy disguised in a sacrificial dress and a brief look at an animalistic rendering of the Prince of Darkness seated upon a throne of bones are a couple of highlights. Bless the Child is not a competent film but that the darkness of the cult at the center of the action has flashes of creepiness that approach being able to redeem the running time.

"The House of the Devil"
“The House of the Devil”

The House of the Devil (2009)

The clues (besides the title) hinting at a demonic twist to the tale start with multiple references to a lunar eclipse and a silent shot of a massacred family placed amongst blood-tinged scrawlings of pentagrams inside the home that babysitter Samantha (Jocelin Donahue) has been called to. The nefarious nature of the cult in Ti West’s The House of the Devil begins with the serene and unusually genial presence of a hobbled man in need of a last minute sitter. Tom Noonan as Mr. Ulman appears convincingly frail and caring. The approach that the cult takes to getting what it wants- not through intimidation but with a gentle, calculated nudging of all the right components into exactly the right place is equal parts brilliant and terrifying. The fact that this is all a concentrated family effort appears to make their bond to get things done with unwaveringly cruel efficiency especially strong. The House of the Devil gets extra points for skillfully balancing the tension of how adept the heroine is at on the spot decision-making and how resilient the plans of the cult are following any missteps. Reality gets turned around several times, grounding the cult’s deeds in something tangibly menacing yet elusive to explicitly describe. The filmmaker has wisely decided that we don’t need informed to be aghast at the Satanic happenings that transpire. Primitive yet intelligent, the cult at the heart of this film is close-knit horror to behold.

Ernest Borgnine in "The Devil's Rain"
Ernest Borgnine in “The Devil’s Rain”

The Devil’s Rain (1975)

William Shatner and Tom Skerritt take on a group of Satanists led by Ernest Borgnine. The synopsis alone is likely to draw most curious cinephiles into the bizarre magnetism of this strange film. The quest for a Satanic book that has been hidden from the cult for hundreds of years puts the Preston family in peril. Melting faces and hollowed out eye sockets abound as they hold the Preston family hostage and push them to disclose the location of this precious book that will make their wildest demonic wishes come true. Although the red hooded robes are nothing much to look at- the make-up is clearly an admirable and detailed effort. With Anton LaVey (the world’s most infamous practicing Satanist) serving as a consultant on the film, the result is a story that is informed, gratuitous and predictably silly. There are establishing shots that go on for far too long and prolonged static moments of liquefied carcasses that grate on the nerves but if you have the stamina to ride out some of the monotony- seeing Ernest Borgnine transform into a goat is well worth the wait. The film is hammy but commendable for how committed it is to exalting the absolute adoration of the Devil’s followers.

"Race with the Devil"
“Race with the Devil”

Race with the Devil (1975)

When two happy-go-lucky couples on a road trip in Texas try to tell local law enforcement that a cult has sacrificed a young girl- they are met with apathy and ridicule. Hurled into a cat and mouse game of survival, their quest for justice is put on the back burner as the cult systematically stalks and violently terrorizes them as they flee. The Devil worshipers are relentless and seemingly omnipresent. Shedding their robes after the first few minutes of the movie, there is no way to tell who is in collusion with the murderers- safer then to assume that everyone is and that every stop that the couples make may be their last. Although this is yet another horror movie that uses country folk as fodder, the idea that those at risk are utterly out of their element is excellently conveyed by how surrounded they seem to be by the enemy. The atmosphere of fear is heightened by the surprisingly first-rate special effects and action sequences that involve the hounding of the couples’ hulking RV. The vehicle is bullied all over country backroads by the Satanists with many of the stunts looking as though risk of injury to the crew was absolutely real. Compared to the disgustingly slick and expensive looking effects of Drive Angry (starring Nicholas Cage, also based around the deeds of a Satanic cult), the chase scenes in Race with the Devil more than hold up- they supersede them and generate genuine suspense. The women in the film have little to do besides cry or worry while the men ineffectively try to beat down their assailants (and some random snakes) at length. Despite the frivolous detours with the protagonists, Race with the Devil is energetic entertainment that spins a web of excitement around the viewer until the final, satisfying moments of the pursuit.

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