Cults in Horror Movies: Riley Stearns’ “Faults” (2014)
A fault is a fracture. It’s a place where pressure builds until it releases.
The dark comedy and crime drama of Faults (2014) get a lot of play in reviews. This focus is understandable because the film is excellent in these areas. Yet some reviewers overlook or miss its horror features. In fact, Faults is a horror movie in subtle disguise. Writer-director Riley Stearns uses psychological and supernatural tropes to good effect. Both types of horror come from the beliefs and practices of a religious cult (“Faults”) from which deprogrammer Ansel (Leland Orser; Taken/Taken 2, 2008/12) attempts to rescue Claire (Mary Elizabeth Winstead; 10 Cloverfield Lane, 2016).
Faults (2014) is Stearns’ first feature. Besides lead actors Winstead (who also produced the film) and Orser, its cast includes Chris Ellis, John Gries, Lance Reddick and Beth Grant. The indie film premiered at the 2014 SXSW, where the audience nominated Stearns for a Narrative Spotlight award. The 2014 AFI Fest’s audience gave him a nomination in the American Independents category. Most significantly for this review, the BloodGuts UK Awards nominated Stearns for Best Screenplay and Orser and Winstead for Best Actor and Best Actress at the 2014 London FrightFest Film Festival.
The movie is set in the 1970s, the heyday of real-life cult expert Ted Patrick. Unlike Patrick, Ansel is a has-been in the cult deprogramming business. The suicide of a young woman under his care caused him to lose his fame and fortune as well as a hit television show. He’s reduced to hawking his self-published second book at small seminars in nondescript hotels. He’s so low on cash that he sleeps in his AMC Gremlin (a symbol of 70s tackiness) when he can’t afford a hotel room. In the opening scene, we see him trying to reuse a free meal voucher at a hotel’s restaurant. Then he’s forced to check out of the hotel earlier than expected due to a misunderstanding over the terms of his speaking engagement there.
Yet Ansel goes ahead with the seminar. This pathetic affair (attended by a few skeptical folks, some of whom leave shortly after Ansel starts talking) turns dark for him and hilarious for viewers. A heckler turns out to be the brother of a woman who killed herself after Ansel’s unsuccessful deprogramming attempt. The man beats him up in front of the audience. After the seminar ends, a middle-aged couple (Ellis and Grant) ask him to help rescue their daughter Claire (Winstead) from a cult. Bitter and irritable, Ansel turns them down.
As if this is not enough, Ansel’s agent Terry (Gries) dumps him. Terry sends this message via an enforcer, Mick (Reddick). Mick’s style is somewhat reminiscent of Jules (Samuel L. Jackson) in Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. He tells Ansel that he has a week to repay Terry what he owes him. Now in need of money in a bad way, Ansel changes his mind about rescuing Claire. Against his better judgment, he takes on her parents as clients.
All of this is just the setup (not “spoilers”) for what’s to come. Ansel doesn’t yet know it, but he’s about to meet his match as a brainwasher. Shortly after abducting Claire, he starts to experience strange and unexplained events. A battery in his pocket explodes into flames while he is talking to her. He starts having what turns into a series of nosebleeds. A firm non-believer in the supernatural and paranormal, he shrugs off these unusual occurrences as mere annoyances.
Ansel’s theory of cults is secular. He chalks all their power up to mental and behavioral control through the misuse of psychosocial techniques. But are these early events hints that Claire’s case will involve the paranormal or supernatural? Since the film follows Ansel and his point-of-view, the audience might tend to adopt his skepticism. This sets viewers up for some surprises in the third act.
One of these surprises begs the question of how many members a cult needs to be effective. Is the cult leader the one who makes it dangerous? Does he or she need the help of followers? Also, does a cult need to draw unsuspecting, vulnerable people into its own environment before it can brainwash them? Or can it be effective anywhere, even in situations designed to defeat it? Finally, are all cults, by definition, wrong in their non-conformism? Before you answer the last question, remember that it’s likely that, at one time, Judaism and Hinduism saw Christianity and Buddhism (respectively) as cults.