There is no shortage of horror films that center around cults. The word “cult” alone sparks immediate intrigue, and it is no wonder co-writer/directors Chris Cullari and Jennifer Raite hopped on the bandwagon with their new film The Aviary. In the last decade alone we have seen a wave of psychological thrillers that focus on cult life and the sinister underbelly of what they stand for in films like The Endless (2017), Midsommer (2019), and Mandy (2018).
We have come to expect certain tropes in cult films like a charismatic leader who is not all they appear to be, submissive followers blindly believing anything they are told, sacrifices and torture for a greater purpose, and of course, the occasional dreamlike acid trip sequence to keep the viewer on their toes. Horror fans and cinephiles alike keep coming back to cult themes and imagery simply because it just works.
“The word cult alone sparks immediate intrigue…”
The film features a small, but talented cast starring Malin Akerman (Watchmen), Lorenza Izzo (Green Inferno), Chris Messina (Devil), and Sandrine Holt (Fear The Walking Dead). We follow Jillian (Akerman) and Blair (Izzo) as they trudge across a seemingly endless expanse of desert clearly suffering from exhaustion, hunger, and paranoia. Right off the bat you are not given much more information than that which is perhaps one of the films strongest assets.
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You are plopped smack dab in the middle of the story with these women who are running away from something they are extremely fearful of. You do not necessarily know what that is yet, but you believe them and empathize with them nonetheless. When eventually becomes apparent is that the women are on the run after escaping a dangerous cult. Unfortunately, the cult itself is the least impressive aspect of the film.
Jillian and Blair were members of a cult called “Skylight” led by the charming and enigmatic Seth (Messina). Much to the film’s detriment, we do not get to see much of this elusive cult or its members, and you are left to take the women’s word for everything. From clues given to us through very brief flashbacks and voiceovers, we are left to gather that Skylight preys upon people who are emotionally and mentally fragile at vulnerable points in their life with the promise of helping them truly free themselves through intense therapy sessions.
Seth is the warm and welcoming face of the cult that allows people to put their guard down and give themselves over completely. Jillian was a higher up in the cult serving as Seth’s right hand, and Blair was a patient and his lover. Seth knows everything about them and the women find themselves endlessly tormented by his voice in their heads. Even though they’ve escaped, it’s unclear if they will ever actually be free of him and the power he holds over them.
One of the most fascinating parts of the film is that Jillian and Blair are unreliable protagonists. Given their situation, it is entirely impossible to get a grip on what is reality and what are delusions brought on by their past trauma. Throughout the entire film they go back and forth, questioning themselves and accusing each other of still trying to assist Seth in his grand plans for Skylight. It is like visual whiplash at times and has you second-guessing not only the two women but also yourself as the viewer. The film keeps you on the edge of your seat and has you completely unable to pick a side until the very end.
The Aviary as a whole is entertaining, fast-paced, and visually appealing, but there is still something missing. In a film about a cult I want to be hit over the head with all kinds of examples of why I too should be frightened of what they are capable of, but instead, I was left still a bit confused about what Seth and Skylight were all about. It feels like the filmmakers were focused more on conveying the aftermath of what Jillian and Blair’s experiences have done to them, but forgot to explain what those experiences actually were. Perhaps a scene or two of what daily life looked like in this cult would have immersed me more fully into the world they were trying to build. Nonetheless, the actors put forth some great performances, and my attention was captured the entire time.
“…entertaining, fast-paced, and visually appealing…”
Chris Cullari and Jennifer Raite’s The Aviary hits select theatres and VOD April 29. Let us know what you thought of this cult acid trip over on Twitter, Reddit, Facebook, and in the official Nightmare on Film Street Discord. Not a social media fan? Get more horror delivered straight to your inbox by joining the Neighbourhood Watch Newsletter.