2021 began with a bang: There was a violent insurrection staged at the Capitol building by groups tied to religious extremism right before the highly anticipated Saint Maud finally got a release date after being delayed six months due to, shocker, the ongoing pandemic. Rose Glass’ debut feature’s release ended up closely coinciding with one of the boldest examples of radicalized people stepping up to the plate to serve God in a way that will disturb and haunt us for years to come—and it’s hard not to think the timing cosmic after watching the film. It’s almost as if it had something to say.
When we meet Morfydd Clark’s Maud, she is returning to her job as a private carer for the infirm under the guidance of the Lord, with whom she regularly engages in one-sided communication amid her lonely daily life after a traumatic incident with a former ward. She’s convinced God has a larger purpose for her, which is an obvious part of the driving force behind her taking drastic action in the name of religion. But before Maud unearths that purpose—or before real-life folks who allow religion to drive their urges to dangerous heights uncover their passion for things like pro-life advocation, anti-gay marriage lobbying or attempting to overturn an election—she needs a reason to find it in the first place.
Her new ward is the fiery Amanda, a 40-something retired dancer with spunk, a distaste for religion, and terminal cancer. Something about the woman compels Maud to protect Amanda’s soul from eternal hellfire at whatever cost, giving the devout Christian the grounds (in her mind) to go as far as necessary to achieve her cause. As they say, there will be blood—that of Maud and others. This realization is not unlike ones that real-life extremists have in the throes of their most volatile and vicious acts. It’s the kind of rhetoric we’ve seen in right-leaning Facebook groups, Parler posts and directly out of the mouths of our politicians. The concept might be scary in the heightened world of the film—and it is—but the violent potential is even scarier in real life.
However, Maud isn’t the only pious zealot to take center stage in the horror genre in recent years. The following six films also radiate the same overwhelming sense of dread that real-life religious extremism breeds, so say a prayer and watch…if you dare.
What You’re In For: Karyn Kusama’s 2015 stunner slowly dips the viewer into a honey pot of paranoid trepidation as Will (Logan Marshall-Green) and his girlfriend Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi) attend a dinner party peppered with old friends and unexpected guests at his ex-wife Eden (Tammy Blanchard) and her new husband David’s (Michiel Huisman) home. Something unnerves Will from the start, though, and sets him down a path of suspicion that leads to an unholy secret that threatens the evening.
How Extreme Is Extreme? Friendships are tested at the end of the barrel of a gun—and the night certainly does not end without mass bloodshed—all in the name of a supposed higher power.
What You’re In For: Three rowdy guys find themselves in a living Hell when a fanatical pastor’s daughter drugs their beers after a group sex invitation in this underrated 2011 horror. The men wake up on her father’s altar at the local extremist church, minutes away from being ritually murdered—but can they figure out a way to escape their sadistic fate?
How Extreme Is Extreme? Writer/Director Kevin Smith told Rotten Tomatoes that Fred Phelps, infamous leader of the Westboro Baptist Church, “really informed” the late Michael Parks’ character, Pastor Abin Cooper—so you know this one’s a doozy.
What You’re In For: Mourning college student Dani (Florence Pugh) accompanies her dismissive, detached boyfriend and his friends to a midsummer festival in Sweden at the behest of their classmate, who hails from the pagan-worshipping cult, er, community hosting the ceremonies. One by one, the foreigners detach from reality via mind-altering substances and start to disappear as the group’s rituals get more and more bizarre—and deadly.
How Extreme Is Extreme? Writer/Director Ari Aster shocked us with one particular death in his stellar 2018 debut feature, Hereditary, so horror fans will be happy to know his 2019 follow-up doesn’t hold back with the outlandish and nearly awe-inducing kills in the name of worship.
What You’re In For: In this underwatched 2015 historical terror, Emma Watson plays a German woman who attempts to rescue her boyfriend from a devout Christian cult during the 1973 Chilean military coup under Pinochet’s rule. Colonia Dignidad, a real-life cult posing as a charitable mission, was known for being a group few were able to liberate themselves from—but to their bloody end, these characters try.
How Extreme Is Extreme? The faux mission’s preacher, Paul Schafer (Michael Nyqvist), uses and abuses Christian teachings to justify abuses inflicted on his congregation members. It is, of course, a power tactic disguised as an opportunity to cleanse the soul.
What You’re In For: A young French woman (Mylène Jampanoï) who suffered a year-long stint of horrible torture after being abducted finds her captors years later and enacts bloody revenge. After calling on the help of her longtime best friend (Morjana Alaoui) to clean up the mess, the pair are forced into a harrowing nightmare of unrelenting monstrous apparitions and the quest to discover the nature of the afterlife.
How Extreme Is Extreme? This 2008 horrorshow, one of the most famous titles of New French Extremism, features some of the most depraved acts one human being could inflict upon another. The fact that those acts were performed in the pursuit of confirming the existence of Heaven makes them all the more vile.
What You’re In For: Set in 1905, Dan Stevens plays a man desperate to save his abducted sister, who was taken to a remote Welsh island and held for ransom by an obscure cult no one knows much about. He quickly realizes he will have to go to great lengths if he wants to escape alive with his sibling, who is being prepped for a ritual sacrifice.
How Extreme Is Extreme? During one particularly intense scene in the 2018 period piece, the cult’s leader—expertly played by Michael Sheen—performs a “purification” ritual on a lovestruck teen boy that will turn your stomach and plague your dreams. Trust me.
Lex Briscuso is an entertainment, film and culture writer with bylines at Life & Style, In Touch Weekly, Shudder’s The Bite and EUPHORIA. She spends too much time thinking about One Direction and the leftover moments writing poetry, fiction and screenplays. Her horror radio show, YOUR NICHE IS DEAD, is live Mondays 5pm ET only on KPISSFM. She tweets @nikonamerica.