Indie auteurs renowned for the originality and craft of their microbudget horror movies, Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead make the transition from writer-directors to leading men with their ambitious third feature, The Endless. The knotty plot overlaps with events in their 2012 debut, Resolution, expanding some of its themes into a richer and stranger backstory. But prior knowledge of the duo’s previous work is not necessary to savor this rich banquet of mind-bending weirdness.
Already garlanded with prizes and buzzy reviews on the festival circuit, The Endless is shaping up to be a career-making breakthrough for Benson and Moorhead. Following its German premiere at the Oldenburg International Film Festival last week, it screens at Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas, this weekend, with a U.K. debut scheduled at the London Film Festival next month. Texas-based distributors Well Go USA, known for their arthouse-friendly genre slate, have signed up North American rights
The Endless opens with a quote from cult horror author H.P. Lovecraft, whose dread-filled mythos of ancient alien gods and terrifying occult knowledge is a key influence on Benson and Moorhead’s work. But the tone here is more classic low-budget indie drama, restrained and cerebral, than nightmarish horror. Initially, at least.
Spurred by a mysterious videotape that arrives in the mail, Justin Smith (Benson) and his younger brother Aaron (Moorhead) make the fateful decision to revisit Camp Arcadia, a rural commune in the Southern California hinterlands where they were raised after being orphaned in a car crash. Dissatisfied with his current mundane life, Aaron has developed a rose-tinted nostalgia for the commune even though Justin remains wary of a group he once branded a “UFO death cult,” partly in a bid to lure his more gullible sibling away. The brothers make an uneasy pact to return to the camp for a short visit, seeking closure with their troubled past.
On arrival at Camp Arcadia, Justin and Aaron receive a warm, forgiving welcome from the remaining commune members, whose wholesome off-the-grid lifestyle appears to keep them freakishly young. The camp’s de facto leader Hal (Tate Ellington) urges the duo to take part in group bonding activities, including an unsettling karaoke session and a bizarre nocturnal ritual involving a giant rope that stretches off into the night sky. Justin dismisses these stunts as manipulative magic tricks, challenging Hal’s motives. But the real source of the increasingly eerie mood inside the camp proves to be more supernatural than human.
The Endless is not just about latent power struggles within cults but also within families, and about how both are eclipsed by more ancient, malevolent cosmic forces. A whole page of spoilers could not adequately explain all the rabbit holes that the film explores in its final act, but suffice to say Benson and Moorhead studiously avoid horror clichés while still delivering a sustained crescendo of queasy suspense. This involves an unseen but all-seeing entity messing with the fabric of time, conducting a kind of apocalyptic symphony using the cult members as instruments. A key scene from Resolution intersects with the plot, stuck on repeat in an infinite time-loop, like Groundhog Day with extra lethal violence. Multiple moons swim across the night sky, ominous portents of some looming cataclysm.
As lead actors, directors, screenwriters and key crewmembers, Benson and Moorhead pull off an impressive multi-tasking job. Both give understated but confident performances as part of a generally solid ensemble cast. Visual effects are sparingly but effectively used, with loops and circles serving as cryptic motifs throughout. The vintage folk-blues ballad “House of the Rising Sun” also makes multiple appearances, increasingly sinister each time. A sun-bleached color palette serves the wide-open Californian vistas well, particularly during the film’s trippy later stages, when the widescreen landscape becomes steadily more alien. We are definitely not in Kansas anymore, Toto.
Benson and Moorhead favor a deadpan dialogue style that verges on mumblecore at times. Their plotting is also a little eccentric, shifting from low-voltage indie naturalism to sense-jolting occult weirdness in the final half hour, blitzing viewers with baffling twists and wild revelations that ultimately leave plenty of loose ends hanging.
But such minor glitches in tone and pacing do not detract from the generally high quality of this atmospheric, ingenious, unsettling journey through the Lovecraftian looking glass. A key future challenge for the duo will be how to bring this fine-grained auteur approach into the commercial mainstream without diluting their strongly original vision.
Production companies: Moorhead & Benson, Pfaff & Pfaff Productions
Cast: Aaron Moorhead, Justin Benson, Callie Hernandez, Tate Ellington, Lew Temple, James Jordan, Shane Brady, Kira Powell, David Lawson, Emily Montague, Peter Cilella
Directors: Aaron Moorhead, Justin Benson
Screenwriter: Justin Benson
Producers: David Lawson Jr., Justin Benson, Aaron Moorhead, Thomas R. Burke, Leal Naim
Cinematographer: Aaron Moorhead
Editors: Michael Felker, Aaron Moorhead, Justin Benson
Music: Jimmy LaValle
Venue: Oldenburg International Film Festival