Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead’s horror thriller The Endless opens with a H.P. Lovecraft quote: “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.”
That sets the stage for what’s to come.
The duo’s debut feature Resolution (2012) revolved around an ominous, unseen entity, terrorizing two friends holed up in an isolated cabin in the woods.
Benson-Moorhead’s sophomore effort Spring (2014) starts off like a meet-cute romance story but soon shifts gears to bring forth a Lovecraftian hybrid of sci-fi and horror.
With their third feature The Endless (2018), the duo returns to the mythos and universe of Resolution, imparting wider context for realizing the meta themes and adding deep emotional quotient to the proceedings.
Of course, The Endless works fine as a stand-alone film.
Both the characters and narrative arc (of two movies) fully exist on their own.
At the same time, if you had seen Resolution, the ‘Easter Eggs’ in the narrative would bring more joy and depth to the viewing.
Moreover, I liked the gutsiness of these indie film-makers who’ve tried to make a horror-universe out of low-budget films.
Apart from splitting the technical duties (both direct, Benson takes up writing duties while Moorhead mans the camera, and both co-edited with Michael Felker), Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead play brothers on-screen.
Justin plays the elder, paternalistic brother. Aaron is the wistful, naive younger brother.
They live in cramped quarters, surviving on noodles and a minimum-wage house-cleaning job.
Justin could take this hard, dull life compared to death by suicide in the hands of a UFO cult.
A decade back, when the brothers were teenagers they escaped from a cult/commune which is alleged to have been hellbent on mass suicide.
Justin is cynical and skeptical of the time spent in commune ‘Camp Arcadia’.
The commune is situated in California countryside, even though there has never been a mass suicide as feared.
Unlike Justin, Aaron feels nostalgic about the past.
After losing their mother to a road accident, the camp members provided them shelter and showed compassion.
Hence, Aaron achingly remembers the companionship, good food, and clean air.
For years, the brothers have unsuccessfully gone through social deprogramming.
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Furthermore, the arrival of video cassette triggers all of Aaron’s past memories of gentle nostalgia.
The video duly urges the two to return.
Justin has fiercely campaigned against Arcadia in the past. But in order to appease his brother, dispel his naivety, and seek a closure, he agrees for an overnight trip.
What they find there is a bit confounding, but not entirely in a bad way.
The cult members they left haven’t aged a bit, the credit given to successful utopian existence, fortified with tasty home-brewed beer, natural food, arts & crafts, and a sense of togetherness.
Aaron is naturally excited, and Justin looks for a slight crack or slip-up in the appearance.
Justin does encounter a few odd things. The camp’s unofficial ring-leader Hal (Tate Ellington) treats an ordinary physics equation as the key to unlock a dimension in space-time; the straight, slender thingamajigs marked on the path; a wife (Emily Montague) in search of her missing husband, padlocked shed, baffling video tapes, and so on.
The brothers do enjoy karaoke, hiking, and fishing sessions in the serene atmosphere. However, the camp’s eeriness slowly escalates to higher proportions.
Justin and Aaron’s naturalistic acting and deft direction project the enthusiasm and verve that largely lacks in high-budget genre movies.
The Endless isn’t without horror-movie cliches, although the duo has infused it in myriad amusing ways.
The middle-portions go through a sort of rough patch, the feeling of bafflement exceeding the feelings of horror.
But as the larger puzzle is gradually revealed, the narrative retains its sense of fine-tuned peculiarity.
Justin-Aaron’s formalist tricks and visual choices for building unease are commendable.
Circles become a recurrent visual motif, indicating the emphasis on time loops and the bickering brothers’ emotional loops.
Like I said earlier, it’s not necessary to watch Resolution to comprehend The Endless.
The narrative dexterity doesn’t make the inclusion of Resolution characters an esoteric knowledge.
Yet I was glad I saw it before this one, since it adds to the viewing experience.
The lo-fi effects don’t always perfectly describe the high-concept science.
Nevertheless, genre-pleasure seeking audience wouldn’t be disappointed.
Eventually, The Endless worked for me due to the emotional investment in the central characters.
For all its Lovecraftian elder-god things and inexplicable manipulation of space-time, the film is truly about brothers unitedly purging their painful past in order to gain an invigorating present.
Overall, The Endless (111 minutes) is a fascinatingly creepy micro-budget supernatural horror that makes up for its narrative flaws through assured direction, technological acumen, and eccentric energy.
By Arun Kumar
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An ardent cinephile, who truly believes in the transformative power and shared-dream experience of cinema. He blogs at ‘Passion for Movies.’