When I traveled to California for the first time last year, I was low-key worried that I might be inducted into a cult during my brief visit and be trapped there forever. I was already on the mailing list of a California-based U.F.O. cult at the time, and most of the cults I’ve become familiar with while researching movies over the past few years have originated in the state: The Church of Satan, Scientology, The Buddhafield, etc. There’s just something about the California temperament and its invitation for transplants to remake & remarket themselves in the state’s robust pop culture industry that makes its citizens uniquely susceptible to cult-leader predation.
Given how abusive most of those cult leaders become with enough time & unchecked power, that topic is a questionable foundation for a kooky, twee comedy. Seven Stages to Achieve Eternal Bliss by Passing Through the Gateway Chosen by the Holy Storsh is about a young couple of Middle America transplants who move to Los Angeles in an effort to reinvent themselves, only to immediately become involved in the treacherous, routine bloodshed of a suicide cult. It’s a lot cuter than it sounds, considering the real-life abuses that it parodies, but it might ultimately be too cute to resonate with any significance at all. Seven Stages is an overwhelmingly harmless, breezy movie about ritualistic suicide – which wouldn’t necessarily be a problem if it were funny enough to distract from that tonal discrepancy.
Kate Micucci and Sam Huntington costar as recent L.A. transplants who are horrified to discover that their new apartment is only cheap because it’s the preferred “worshiping” grounds of a suicide cult. Taika Waititi plays the cult leader—the titular Holy Storsh—which is excellent casting considering his magnetic charisma as a real-life Personality. Thanks to Storsh’s teachings, intruders repeatedly break into the newly arrived couple’s shithole apartment for the privelege to commit suicide in their bathtub – a ritual aimed to achieve the bliss of “instantaneous eternity.”
This seems like an extreme practice at first, but the more the couple digs into Storsh’s vague self-help mumbo jumbo the more they warm up to their uninvited, self-harming visitors. They gradually transform their apartment into a Luxury Assisted-Suicide B&B to accommodate the ritual, then inevitably become indoctrinated into the cult as active participants themselves. It’s a tale as old as California, although in real life it tends to end in devastated & befuddled relatives back home rather than light chuckles & a wasted afternoon. I don’t know that I expected the movie to operate with the same Traumatizing Apartment Cult intensity as Rosemary’s Baby or anything, but it certainly could have benefited from taking the violence that drives its light-hearted jokes more seriously, at least so that there would be some tension for the punchlines to relieve.
There’s a sitcom-style repetition to the visits from the guest-start suicide cultists as they take turns breaking into the apartment, which allows the movie to pack in a ton of familiar, always-welcome faces who’d please any comedy nerd with an affinity for the L.A. scene: Maria Bamford, Mark McKinney, Brian Posehn, Dan Harmon, etc. These tangential guest-star spotlights don’t register with any staying power outside their momentary gags, though, so all that really matters is the unraveling of the central couple who rent the doomed apartment.
Some signs of the couple’s mental unraveling are absolutely inspired, especially the loopy improv-style backstory of why they had to leave Ohio and the gradual escalation of their birdhouse-building home business that transforms the apartment itself into a Lynchian otherworld. Mostly, though, the only memorable details from the picture are Micucci’s natural adorability and the catchy bathtub-themed suicide jingle Taika Waititi’s enigmatic cult leader sings over the opening credits.
The rest of the movie just gently flows down the drain as a pleasant-but-forgettable amusement – decent enough for lazy-afternoon viewing, but not worth going out of your way for despite the impressive cast list on the poster. Given the ultraviolent premise’s connection to real-life California cult culture and the talent involved, I think it’s reasonable to expect more than that.