The Endless

Studio: Well Go USA
Directed by Justin Benson & Aaron Moorehead

Apr 05, 2018 Web Exclusive
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The hardest part of telling a horror story is coming up with a compelling reason why your characters don’t immediately get the hell out of there when shit gets spooky. In real life, most of us have enough wisdom to know that going down into the basement alone after you hear some strange noises is a bad idea. Or that breaking into an abandoned insane asylum in the middle of the night is probably not going to end well. Nevermind silver bullets and wooden stakes: if you want to survive a horror film, carry around some common sense.

In Justin Benson & Aaron Moorehead’s The Endless (their third feature film collaboration), they play a pair of orphaned brothers named Justin and Aaron. Escaping a “UFO death cult” in their youth, they’ve been eking out a miserable existence as cleaners in the big city. After finding a strange package on their doorstep, the brothers decide to head back to Camp Arcadia, the woodland base of their old cult, and get some closure on their past lives as true believers. It’s clearly a bad idea, but Benson and Moorehead give their characters motivations that make their mutual decision to “go down into the basement” believable.

The Endless is a deeply Lovecraftian film. It checks off all the cosmic horror boxes. Characters grappling with an unknowable entity while dealing with their own deteriorating sanity? Check. Isolated cultists that are serving strange powers? Check. People talking about “impossible colors” and infinity? Check. But the most Lovecraftian aspect of the film is the brothers’ motives for going back to the cult: knowledge. Like every protagonist in a Lovecraft story that dooms themselves because they just had to read that old grimoire, Justin and Aaron’s yearning for closure and self-knowledge is what plunges them into a nightmare.

The film ratchets up the tension with haunting and inexplicable imagery. Old photographs, circles, birds, skipping records, and strange rock totems pop up as omens throughout The Endless. Moorehead’s cinematography captures the beauty of the woods while also taking advantage of their inherent spookiness: how the shadows of trees and the denseness of foliage could be the perfect camouflage for all kinds of monsters, both real and imagined.

Benson & Moorehead are old hands at this kind of spooky fiction. Their last two films, Resolution and Spring, shared similar elements of Lovecraftian fiction with reality-warping storylines and monsters. For fans of Resolution, The Endless serves as a companion piece to Benson & Moorehead’s debut (characters played by Peter Cilella and Vinny Curran make brief appearances in the film). And The Endless sidesteps the narrative trap the filmmakers fell into in Spring, where their attempts to explain their monster with science stretched suspension of disbelief to its breaking point. While characters in The Endless do advance plausible theories on what’s happening to them, there’s no definitive answers given.

Unless your name is Orson Welles, acting in a film you’ve also written and directed is rarely a good idea. But Benson & Moorehead manage to pull off compelling performances as the ex-cultists. They have a believable chemistry as brothers: affectionate yet tense, as liable to hug it out as slug it out. And the rest of the cast shines as the hefeweizen-brewing, seemingly-genial hipster cult of Camp Arcadia, with Tate Ellington and Lew Temple standing out (respectively) as the warm and wary leaders of the cult.

Casting themselves as the leads also gives their cosmic horror film a bit of a mumblecore feel. Rather than trying to do Bergman or Truffaut on a shoestring a la a Joe Swanberg or an Andrew Bujalski, they’re taking that hangout film, let’s-shoot-a-movie-with-friends vibe and using it to explore some heady and unsettling metaphysical material.

The Endless does fall short on a few fronts. The opening ten minutes is a blur of exposition and table-setting; the last ten minutes is just a straight-up blur of poorly rendered digital effects. Once the brothers arrive at Camp Arcadia, though, the film settles into a beguiling groove. Justin Benson’s script also gets a little on-the-nose with the subtext. If you haven’t figured out that the film is a metaphor about toxic familial relationships and getting stuck in a rut, don’t worry: it’ll remind you over and over again. 

Author rating: 6/10

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Average reader rating: 8/10



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