Recently, the show Cult came on Netflix. At about the same time, I had cards to sort. This lead to me watching a show that was old news five minutes after its finale. Clearly, the show was trying to carve out a horror/mystery niche, near the proven shows Supernatural, Fringe, The Killing, The Following, and most recently, True Detective. But it failed in most respects. Why?
Cult starts off with a rather simple premise—there is a wildly popular show-within-the-show, also titled Cult, for maximum confusion. This show, which I'll call inCult, is about an abusive cult leader named Billy Grimm, and his former lover/student/adorant Kelly Collins, who's trying to bring him to justice. This show has a massive and wildly devoted fanbase, who think there are hidden messages in the program.
In the pilot, a down-on-his-luck journalist, Jeff Sefton, is confronted by his brother Nate. Nate claims that he found some secret truths in inCult, and these fans are after him. Jeff, like anyone with the common sense of a cucumber, brushes him off. Sadly, Nate was right, and gets himself kidnapped, and it's up to Jeff to find him. Jeff visits the film set to get to the bottom of this, and runs into a production assistant for inCult, Skye Yarrow, who is worried about the radical elements of the fanbase. They decide to investigate together.
So immediately, we have two incredible hooks for horror—a cult conspiracy, and a forbidden work of art. Here's how these things should work.
The Origins of Horror
Horror, as a genre, is attempting to evoke and combat the audience's fear. Combating the horror, and triumphing over it, however fleeting, is a definite part of the catharsis in horror—without that, you're just watching a bunch of people suffer.
There are two general types of horror. The first I'll call corporeal horror. Here, the main horror has a body. It threatens immediate physical harm on the protagonist, cannot be reasoned with, and has massive advantages over its human victims. Monster and slasher movies fall into this.
There's also existential horror. In this, the main horror is an idea that's horrifying, both for what it means to the protagonist and for how it applies to real life. These ideas aren't hard to come by—SF is full of them. Douglas Adams wrote, "Space is big. Really big. You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it's a long way down the road to the chemist's, but that's just peanuts to space." HP Lovecraft wrote, "We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far." Same idea, but instead of a sense of wonder, it invokes a sense of horror.
Generally, these stories are built to hint at things, so that you're given the idea of how the big idea is horrifying, but are spared the full implications. They also show what happens to people who do know the full idea. Cosmic and conspiracy horror falls under this umbrella.
Very few horror stories fall solely under one type or the other—look at Event Horizon for something that neatly straddles the line—but most follow these conventions.
Run! It's pathos!
Cult starts off by implying an anarchic conspiracy of fans, all willing to kill because they heard voices in the sound design of inCult. This is a perfect example of a group of implacable monsters—endless, armed, and dangerous. We quickly find out that these fans are directed by an elite, known as the True Believers. Early in the season, a prominent policewoman, Det. Rosalind Sakelik, is revealed as one of them, and rapidly becomes Jeff's only point of contact. She starts off obstructionist, then turns to threatening and coercing the protagonists. She taunts Jeff with Nate's fate, and shoots Jeff's boss. Despite all this, she shows enough moments of remorse that it's difficult to view her as evil. When she says "do this for your own good," we get the feeling she cares.
By midseason, Jeff and Skye investigate Rosalind's childhood, because reasons. They find out she was once a child in a cult known as Moon Hill, and was abandoned at a young age by the cult's adults. They also find a connection to an old murder. Rather than play this as the thing that made a monster, the show invites us to sympathize with Rosalind, going so far as to show her being vulnerable with her friends/Jeff's leads, even as she murders again.
As the two uncover more damning evidence from Rosalind's past, Rosalind is taken to task by another True Believer, a studio executive who looks about as threatening as your slightly douchey uncle. He tells Rosalind to protect the True Believers, no matter the cost.
In what's probably the best scene of the series, Rosalind confronts the protagonists in their car. She has her gun out, and is wildly distraught. She says, "In this life, you only get so many heartbeats (…) when I was young, my heartbeats got taken from me. And I've been fighting to get them back." Jeff, of course, blathers about Nate, because we can't have the protagonist solving his problems through talking. After this, she's taken to task again, and then commits suicide.
This is the death-knell for a flagging plotline. Rosalind was not a well-loved character, sure, but she was the driving force behind the True Believers' horror—a ruthless woman who rationalized every atrocity she did against the protagonists. She was the focal point for the True Believers. Attractive dude with a beard number 14 certainly couldn't carry the plot—under his "leadership," when Jeff, Nate, and some goons get trapped in an old Moon Hill church, Jeff and Nate pass notes through Scooby-Doo hijinks.
However, Rosalind wasn't quite a villain we could easily hate. She empathized with the protagonists a little too much while tormenting them. When she wasn't tormenting them, she was merely doing her job. If she had been more ruthless, she'd have been an excellent villain. As it stands, she's just a good cop between a rock and a hard place.
The Unending Horror of Afternoon Soaps!
inCult is, at first, a cop show where the Detective is trying to catch a cult leader, Billy Grimm. Billy is played by the always-underused Robert Knepper, who brings a sense of derangement and evil to a role that is, at best, vaguely sinister. We get little snippets of both behind-the-scenes filming, which is dreadfully mundane, and the show itself, played at act breaks. In the pilot, at the very beginning, Billy gives an interview on some worn film in a reddish color pallet, complete with AV glitches, some that seem sinister. He speaks of love and connection, and yet you are immediately put on guard. Sadly, after this segment, inCult drops most of the AV distinctions between itself and Cult. Because of this, the inCult segments end up reminding us that this is just a show, actively working against emotional involvement.
That said, inCult starts off strong. Detective Kelly investigates a house, and finds a man cemented into a wall. The police talk about a video released by Billy, where he repeats the words, "Well, hey, these things just snap right off" over and over, making them arc words. Kelly's sister is still in the cult. A man gets buried head-first, in a mockery of Billy's initiation rites. And Billy just won't let Kelly forget that she was his wife/student. I found myself more interested in inCult than the actual show.
All this changes once Kelly gets a break. She finds evidence directly leading to Billy, and charges him. They broker a deal—Kelly's sister for the evidence. The trade goes smoothly, though Billy does murder some people, to remind us he's supposed to be evil.
After that, the show becomes a soap opera. Billy is reduced to pining for Kelly, which apparently includes blowing up a cornfield, and Kelly is left to go to therapy about her mother's murder. The cult itself drops out of the viewing entirely. Billy eventually comes up with a bizzare plan to get Kelly back, but it's too little, too late.
Here's the problem: As a standalone show, inCult could be good. As a work of art that is supposed to cause fans to go crazy and murder people, it's not nearly gonzo enough. We need segments where nothing makes sense, and it's creepy. We need the actors complaining about nightmares. We need haunted things happening on set all the time. As it is, we're essentially seeing fans of One Life to Live murder people who don't love the show enough.
The End… Or is it? (It is.)
Both of these failed plotlines weighed heavily on the show as it moved into its finale, but the writers promised a conspiracy. As the protagonists learn more, they realize that Moon Hill is the inspiration for inCult, and that Moon Hill's leader, Phillip, could be inCult's mysterious writer Steven Rae. (Also the name of a credited Executive Producer of Cult. Sorry, didn't mean to make you roll your eyes that hard.)
It seems Phillip had an obsession with TV—he thought that it could force a collective consciousness on a group of people, what he called Neuro-fusion. He thought it was evil, and his followers had to isolate themselves from it. Then he "discovered" "something," but conveniently forgot to tell anyone what it was. The same night, the adults from Moon Hill mysteriously vanished, leaving the children to fend for themselves. These children became the True Believers, dedicated to finding what happened to their parents. Apparently they need Nate to find the hidden messages in the show that's handing them answers because shut up.
This is all revealed pretty suddenly, just after Rosalind commits suicide. There's no time for speculation, which kills the already-weak mystery aspects of the show. All the players are known going into the final stretch. There's no real horror pulling the show forward any more, and any sense of mystery is about the fate of long-gone parents, whose children are all adults now.
Long story short, Jeff finds the dead bodies of the adults, trades their whereabouts for Nate, and oh my word there's still the finale to go. Without getting into that tensionless morass, we can say roughly what went wrong with this series.
What went wrong:
- The premise was too complicated. Compare this with Fringe—there's an FBI agent dealing with science experiments gone bad. You can say more, but you don't have to.
- There was no constant threat—they killed off Rosalind, the only recurring threat, in favor of nameless goons.
- Answers come a little too quickly to build up tension.
- inCult reminded us it was just a show. MST3K can do that, but horror probably shouldn't.
- inCult wasn't believable as a show of arcane brainwashing.
- There's a whole plot arc about the actor playing Billy Grimm dating the conspiracy leader's teenage daughter that I didn't recap, because it's entirely irrelevant. That shouldn't have happened.
- In general, the show just didn't commit to its horror premise. It didn't bother putting emotional punch behind what was supposed to be scary. If it had done more legwork for their scares rather than relying on Lost-style reveals, the series could have taken off.