Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson's otherworldly microbudget thriller combines cult dynamics and Lovecraftian horror to deliver something remarkably new.
(Editor’s note: For more of our coverage of The Endless, we also interviewed writer/director/stars Justin Benson and Aaron Morehead, which you can find here.)
Keeping the audience at a distance requires a delicate balance. In films like Primer, the alienation effect gives you an emotionless fly-on-the-wall perspective, inviting you to analyze the characters as mere specimens in the great human experiment. Contrariwise, in films like The Prestige, the narrative encourages you to emotionally invest in its characters, bringing you in so close that you miss the forest for the trees. For spooky, you need the former; for scary, you need the latter. The Endless employs a little bit of both strategies, without wholly committing to either. It’s an uneven, but effective, balance.
The independent production is skillfully cobbled together on a microbudget (as horror films often are) by writer/director team Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead – the minds behind similarly Lovecraftian indie thrillers Resolution and Spring. They also happen to play the lead characters, a pair of brothers conveniently named “Justin” and “Aaron.” Ten years ago, the duo gained media attention by escaping a cult—not a hypercompetent organization like the Church of Scientology, but more of a self-sustaining, isolated hippie commune along the lines of the Moonies.
Today, the brothers live in an oppressively gray, desaturated world, working for a house cleaning company and subsisting on powdered-shrimp ramen. Aaron, the younger brother, longs to return to the womb-like security of the commune, where there was always fresh food, homemade beer, music, and companionship. Justin, the elder, remembers it differently, but reluctantly agrees after receiving a mysterious video cassette from their former home.
In Dominic Streatfeild’s impeccable exposé, Brainwash: The Secret History of Mind Control, he provides testimonies from multiple cult survivors who credit their indoctrination to the fact that they were bombarded with so much fun group activity that they never had time to reflect on their situation or think for themselves. (Wake up, it’s time for music! It’s time for food! It’s time for exercise! It’s time for drugs!) We see these tactics at play in the film, with nightly campfires, karaoke parties, and a strange group activity involving a tug of war with a rope that leads upward into the pitch black sky.
These warning signs alarm Justin the Wiser to no end, but the cultists actually have no malicious intent. They stick together in their little valley because there really is something hiding out there in the woods, some godlike being occupying the fringes of sanity. They’d like to know why, but until they figure that out, they haven’t really got much to complain about.
Then, little by little, the uncanny creeps into their little camp. It’s difficult to go into greater detail without revealing the supernatural twists and turns that make this film so rewarding, Benson and Moorhead’s delicate balance excels at keeping you guessing the whole way through. Each strange detail seems to lead in several different directions at once, making it impossible for the viewer to form a working theory, until finally, I’m happy to say, the film delivers a satisfying resolution. Which, mind you, is not the same thing as an answer to the mystery.
Whatever it is they think is out there, they all agree that it must be acting intentionally. It can’t just be a mere glitch in quantum mechanics, or the accidental byproduct of some visitor who passed by long ago. Either they’re too terrified that a phenomenon of this magnitude could be meaningless, or the thought never occurs to them. In reality, our personal searches for meaning can only last a lifetime. The Endless teases us with a delightfully macabre alternative.
The Endless comes to Chicago’s Music Box Theater on April 20th.