Film Review: The Endless

Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson’s film is an excellent foray into Lovecraftian horror, mixing cosmic dread and some mordant humor in ways that manage to be consistently disorienting.
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It seems like H.P. Lovecraft’s peculiar brand of cosmic horror has been making a bit of a comeback in cinemas over the last few months, what with the release of Alex Garland’s Annihilation, Philip Gelatt’s They Remain, and now The Endless, the latest offering from the filmmaking team of Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson. These films all partake, to varying degrees, in one of Lovecraft’s central concerns: the precarious position of humanity in the face of a universe that continually proves indifferent, if not actively hostile. Lovecraft famously created an elaborate mythology of inimical deities to achieve these aims, and The Endless succeeds admirably in capturing some of the creeping paranoia and eldritch terror inherent in his ideas.

Like Gelatt’s film, The Endless explicitly invokes Lovecraft with its choice of epigraph. Moorhead and Benson cull a line about the fear of the Unknown being mankind’s oldest and strongest emotion from the opening of his influential essay “Supernatural Terror in Literature.” But The Endless has more mundane matters on its mind as well, indicated by a second quote—attributed (appropriately enough) to an unknown source—that addresses the complicated emotional bonds between siblings: “Friends tell each other how they feel with relative frequency. Siblings wait for a more convenient time, like their deathbeds.” This sentiment will turn out to be quite on-the-nose by the film’s cataclysmic finale.

The Endlessopens with an image that’s deceptively simple and yet slightly surreal: A heavily stamped package drops seemingly out of thin air onto the doorstep of Aaron and Justin Smith (played by Moorhead and Benson, respectively). Inside, there’s a videotaped message from members of the cult that the brothers fled ten years earlier. The tape elicits very different responses from the two: Tired of working a series of hand-to-mouth jobs between deprogramming sessions, Aaron is tempted by halcyon memories of his youth among the cult members to make the trip back to their rural California outpost. The older and more responsible of the two, Justin is less inclined to do so, owing in particular to certain bizarre claims he made about the “UFO death cult” at the time of their escape.

Moorhead and Benson efficiently sketch in the dynamics between the siblings. Aside from giving in to Aaron’s wish to return to the cult’s compound, Justin displays the draconian inflexibility of a tyrant. (This makes it doubly ironic when it’s later revealed that his biggest objection to the cult as a teenager was its lack of a discernible leader.) Aaron attempts to assert some measure of power over his brother by quibbling about semantics, nitpicking at the literal and figurative meanings of words. These naturalistic details of behavior may seem fairly inconsequential at first, but they rather neatly tie into the film’s overarching themes of authority and rebellion.

Things at Camp Arcadia don’t initially seem too “cult-y,” a neologism of sorts that the film humorously employs on several occasions. Members pursue various harmless pastimes like drawing and sewing, while the group at large earns its keep by selling its own brand of microbrew to the outside world. But Moorhead and Benson thread in small moments of disquiet like a magic trick that defies the laws of physics. As The Endless begins to hint at the exact nature of what’s lurking in the landscape, the atmosphere of mounting dread grows more disorienting, aided immensely by Jimmy LaValle’s hauntingly discordant score.

Moorhead and Benson fold in characters and situations from their feature debut, Resolution, giving them new valences of meaning this time around to ensure you don’t have to have seen the earlier film to follow what’s going on. The Endless also deploys some of the same formalist tricks that They Remain indulged in, only here the recurrent leitmotif is circles instead of triangles. This makes good sense, since that geometrical figure resonates with the narrative emphasis on circular logic and time loops. Given the limited budget, the visual effects on display in the climactic set-pieces are pretty impressive, with an aura of resolute lo-fi craftsmanship that’s quite similar to David Lynch’s recent “Twin Peaks: The Return.”

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