As he’s been making the press-circuit rounds in support of his latest feature Midsommar, director Ari Aster has stated that the film – a daytime nightmare about a mentally precarious young woman named Dani (Florence Pugh), her feckless boyfriend (Jack Reynor), and his academia buddies on a trip to Sweden that takes a grisly turn – only plays as horror to the boys in the cast. They fall victim to a classic set of perils, from ritual evisceration to some rather out-there sexual perversions, but she has a more agreeable go of things. In the little encampment tucked away in the valley of Hårga, Dani finds something close to a second family.
Aster’s dual purposes illustrate a crucial divide in the onscreen portrayal of cults, one more pronounced in recent months as American cinema has seen an uptick in movies about the human side of what’s often been painted with fear and suspicion. There’s plenty of both in Riley Stearns’s new film, The Art of Self-Defense, and yet it takes a more analytically anthropological bent of curiosity to its material than most. The dark, violent comedy illustrates the hazards that face new initiates to non-traditional groups emanating a sinister energy, but Stearns doesn’t want to ride the beats of mounting, Wicker Man-style dread. He’s more preoccupied with what could compel a person to pledge their allegiance to an organization that takes their money, strips them of their dignity and reshapes them into a servant.
The main characters of The Art of Self-Defense, Midsommar, Mary Harron’s Charles Manson film Charlie Says, the Symbionese Liberation Army film American Woman (a selection at this year’s Tribeca film festival), even Quentin Tarantino’s upcoming Once Upon a Time in Hollywood all have a handful of traits in common. They match a broad psychological profile: wayward souls without a spouse or family to care for, an absence of any meaningful personal philosophy, an overall surplus of internal voids in need of filling. Stearns’s film revolves around the dictionary definition of a beta male in accountant Casey Davies, the kind of ineffectual nebbish who does nothing when he’s openly mocked by French tourists unaware that he can understand them. After he’s roughed up in a mugging, he notices an advertisement for a local martial arts class and apprehensively enrolls in the hopes of changing his life for the better.
That’s the turning point at which hapless Casey falls into the trap laid by his peculiarly intense karate instructor, in the moment at which his needs expand from simple bulking-up to a more existential register. Where straight-horror films like Apostle have drawn chilling, surreal terror from the cult concept, horror-adjacent projects get something even more disturbing from concentrating on the seductive mental lure of the same subject. Manson’s teenybopper disciples survived their own scary movie of hypnosis and villainy, but Harron’s film shows how they believed they themselves saved souls at the time and for decades onward.
Any cult worth its hallucinogenic salts operates by perceiving what the mark requires and then giving it to them through a community of surrogate loved ones. Casey, for instance, wants nothing more than to be strong. His manipulative sensei senses this, and prescribes a regimen of hyper-masculinity including black coffee, heavy metal music and a bloodthirsty pooch for a pet. The yellow karate belt grows into a symbol of not of strength, but composure; Casey starts wearing a mustard-colored belt with his everyday clothes because it makes him feel like he’s master of his domain.
This phenomenon takes root with particular frequency in the US, and the movies suggest a thesis as to why. These characters get caught between a culture of compulsory self-actualization – a national obsession with making ourselves whole, happy, successful and complete – and the rarity of actually achieving that ideal perched all the way on the tippy-top of Maslow’s pyramid. An effective cult leans into this dissonance, first instilling in the mark that they lack the fundamentals required to live their best life, and then inserting itself as the salvational force. Isolation from the outside world and its systems of support plays a significant role; note how these films predominantly take place in California or the faceless sprawl of suburbia, climates where young adults can easily slip away from interpersonal contact if they let themselves.
Horror cinema works under the principle that even in the most fanciful of stories, the trace amounts of the real will excel as the most frightening component. Monsters don’t wield quite as much fearsome power as the unknown, just as the enveloping sway of a cult can be more chilling than its ceremonial bloodletting. The past season’s spate of grounded approaches to these fringes blow up that hint of psychorealism to feature size, breaking down the ruthlessly efficient methods by which charlatans can draw in the unsuspecting and vulnerable. It’s an all-American scam we can’t wait to fall for, if for no other reason that it feels so good to give in – until, swiftly and brutally, it doesn’t.