Horror takes a back seat to character in Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead's 'The Endless'
It was a good year for genre/midnight movies at the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival, which boasted a fair set of thrills, chills and weird-ass monsters alongside its typically very reliable documentary slate. Ben Young’s Hounds of Love: scared the crap out of me. Kasra Farahani’s Tilt: massively unsettling. Super Dark Times: gave me the emotional shakes.
The Endless, in which two brothers return to the cult they escaped from a decade prior: fun, actually kind of sweet, and (unlike two other Tribeca movies I saw last year) no dead dogs. Tribeca, you know I love you, but please, chill with the canine carnage. My heart can’t take much more.
The Endless is directors Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead’s quasi-sequel to 2012’s Resolution, in which a man (Peter Ciella) ventures out to Middle of Nowhere, CA to get his estranged drug addict friend (Vinny Curran) clean via the method of chaining him to a wall for a week. Only some mysterious something appears to be watching them…
The “quasi” comes from the fact that The Endless isn’t so much a direct sequel to Resolution as an extension of Resolution that takes place in the same universe. You don’t have to see Resolution to understand The Endless, and in fact, per Benson (who wrote both films), “the thing that took the longest in the development of The Endless was making sure that it completely worked on its own. We were extremely inspired by the world of Resolution. But we were constantly getting notes from people that had no idea what this little movie Resolution we made five years ago was. It’s fun when you watch both, and there’s this weird, perfect continuity. All these little details. [Resolution] inspires us to do good work, but [the two movies] are completely separate.”
“It’s a terrifying idea to take a movie that nobody’s seen and be like, you know what, we’re going to go with that,” chuckles Moorhead. “But it could also keep going. It has a mythology as deep and as big as vampire mythology. We haven’t fully mined it yet, and we could.”
The jumping-off point between Resolution and The Endless is a pair of cult members (played by Benson and Moorhead), seen briefly in the earlier film. Fast forward a decade, and older brother Justin (Benson) has gotten himself and Aaron (Moorhead) out of the cult and into “normal” life. Unable to adjust, Aaron requests that they go back, just for a day, to see their old friends before (according to Justin) whatever doomsday event they’ve been preparing for prompts their mass suicide. Upon returning, Aaron slips right back into the peaceful, hippie-adjacent life of the cult/commune (depending on which brother you ask), while the more skeptical Justin begins to investigate the truth behind the cult's vague belief system. Turns out it's not so made-up as he assumed.
As horror movie monsters go, the big bad of Resolution and The Endless is less Freddy or Jason and more a voyeuristic, semi-Lovecraftian elemental god pulling the strings of this small sliver of humanity. The Lovecraftian influence was more apparent in Benson and Moorhead’s second film as a directing duo, Spring, in which a young man (Lou Taylor Pucci) on vacation in Italy falls in love with a woman (Nadia Hilker) who’s…let’s just say “not human,” per se.
What all three of Benson and Moorhead’s films have in common is a sweetness that belies the occasionally grotesque onscreen goings-on. With Spring, explains Benson, one of the goals was to “take this so dark, [with] so many bad things happening to this person, that you can never imagine they can recover. And the audience knows it’s a sci-fi, horror film. They know they’re on that ride. And when things turn out OK, it’s totally unexpected. So you get an extra thrill out of it.” It's a small, honest happy ending—one of Benson's favorite examples of which is in Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous. “No one got the girl. All that happened was that this kid finally got his interview. And you’re so happy.”
Beyond all the horror and the sci-fi and the cult shenanigans, The Endless is really a movie about the relationship of these two brothers, who at times resent each other but are still, at the end of the day, the only family either one has. The monster—or whatever it is—“plays second fiddle to what the movie is really, really about,” says Moorhead. It goes back to a lesson he learned in film school: “If you have $25,000 and you try to make an action movie, you are immediately competing against action movies that have $200 million. And so, frankly, you shouldn’t even try, because action is about spectacle, right? And in some ways you can say sci-fi/thriller/horror can be as well. But what you can do to compete in every space, what doesn’t cost any extra, is character dynamics. And that’s what everyone cares about. You can have just as good character dynamics as your favorite movies. With $25,000, you’ll never have as good of an action scene as The Dark Knight. But in a low-budget film, or an independent film, you are still on the same stage [as far as character dynamics are concerned]. You’re playing in the same pool.”