When you begin your movie with a Lovecraft quote, you establish certain wingnut expectations right out of the gate. And Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead, the duo behind 2014’s Spring, meet those expectations with the twisty sci-fi/horror cult thriller The Endless. And there’s a character named Shitty Carl, which is a nice bonus.
Along the way, they prove again you don’t need a limitless supply of money to make a fantastic movie. All it takes is a killer idea, the drive to pull it off, and a likeminded cast. Benson and Moorhead do more than double duty on The Endless. Between them, they write, direct, star in, produce, and handle both the editing and cinematography. It sounds like they were busy.
The film follows two brothers, Justin (Benson) and Aaron (Moorhead), who escaped from a castration-happy UFO death cult ten years ago. Life has been hard and neither has truly adjusted to existence on the outside. While Justin, the pragmatic sibling sticks with the deprogramming, the wistful Aaron was younger and thinks fondly on his time in the remote compound. When a mysterious videotape arrives on their doorstep, they reluctantly return to the cult.
What begins as a search for closure that’s eluded them all these years gradually morphs into something much deeper, much darker. At first, everything is great. The people—Hal (Tate Ellington), Anna (Callie Hernandez), Smiling Dave (David Lawson Jr.), and more—welcome them back with open arms and smiles. They sing karaoke, brew beer, and play trust games; it’s like summer camp. But there’s more going on that meets the eye. As the brothers awkwardly interact with the cultists—Justin in a skeptical fashion, Aaron drinking the Kool-Aid as it were—things go from uncomfortable to disorienting, ominous, and hypnotic.
To say much more does The Endless a disservice. But things grow progressively more bizarre and distorted as Justin and Aaron reexamine cult life and reevaluate the group’s beliefs. The film delves into themes about becoming the people we want to be, falling into repetitive patterns, and getting stuck in each other loops, lives, and orbits. Time, specifically skipping, repeating time, like a scratched record, plays an integral part practically and on an ideological level.
Moorhead handles the cinematography, filming The Endless in a way that makes the viewer feel like a fly on the wall. It lends an immediacy and intimacy to the action while he also makes full use of the striking, sparse natural landscapes surrounding the location. They use digital effects sparingly but effectively, and rely on clever editing and staging rather than digital manipulation—another example of making the most of what modest means they have.
The cast grounds and sells the story, especially as it falls down the rabbit hole and devolves into monstrosity. Benson and Moorhead offer believable portrayals of brothers, complete with the love and affection, but also the annoyance and aggravation that entails. Ellington’s de facto leader is sufficiently weird and culty, but not so whoopty-do that he’s a caricature our unbelievable—he lays things out in simple, earnest terms and it’s easy to see why this place appeals to people, even before shit gets weird.
Admittedly, the ages of the actors don’t always match up with the script. On one hand, that’s intentional as becomes clear as the story progresses—many of the cultists are supposed to be much older than they look. It’s most distracting with the brothers. Aaron was supposed to be young enough when they left that he doesn’t remember much about the cult. But given Moorhead’s actual age, ten years places him smack in his mid-20s.
This is a small detail that only pops up every often, and was obviously at least in part due to budgetary and casting restraints, so is easy to let slide. But given how sporadically it arises, it could have been written or edited around without a ton of fuss, so it just stands out as an odd choice in an otherwise tight construction.
The Endless sets its hooks in your mind and stays there. Funny and strange, it plays with notions of time and perception and delves into fear as it becomes increasingly unsettling. A puzzle to unravel, a maze to solve, it presents a smart, satisfying mind-bender of a sci-fi/horror hybrid. [Grade: B+]