This is why I love the horror genre. To me, it’s one of the few genres that takes CHANCES. That, when done well, is not just terrifying, but personal and, at its core, REAL. The Endless is one of those films…
…Directed by Justin Benson & Aaron Moorhead (Spring), and written by Benson, The Endless tells the story of two brothers who return to a cult that they fled years ago, only to discover that the cult’s strange beliefs may not have been so insane after all.
Listen up, horror fans: Benson and Moorhead are the new rulers of the indie horror scene, and we need to all bow down to them like the great old ones…if you’re into that kind of thing. But seriously, if these two have done anything with The Endless, its prove that they are visionaries conjuring heartfelt tales of darkness and wonder. If you still had your doubts after their beautifully horrific, romantic horror film Spring, there is no denying now that these are two guys who will continue to impress (hopefully) for years to come. Both show off their acting chops this time around as the two brothers, Justin Smith (Benson) and Aaron Smith (Moorhead). Benson’s portrayal as the skeptical brother whose stubborn disbelief is slowly being broken down by act after act of unexplainable phenomena is unbelievably human and reminiscent of us all when faced with the truth, to the point where you can see the subtle pain with each moment of realization that reality may not be how he sees it. Moorhead, on the other hand, is the exemplification of the emptiness so many of us feel in such a large world. His character Aaron lives such a sad, pathetic life, that he’s willing to go back to a cult he fled because he thought they were all going to kill themselves. That’s some heavy stuff, to be so desperate that he wants to go back, and there isn’t a second that goes by in the film where you doubt Aaron feels that strongly about it. Both are reflections of the hardships of every-day life, and they represent them perfectly.
The exceptionalism of The Endless goes beyond its true to life characters with real, existential problems. It’s also wonderfully eerie. For those that were curious how heavily the film is influenced by H.P. Lovecraft, the film begins with his quote: “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind if fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown”. The “unknown” part is key, because it’s that fear of the unknown that The Endless heavily relies upon. Before the two brothers even arrive at the actual campsite of the cult, they discover a point on the highway between two flocks of birds mirroring each other in an endless cycling overhead. There, they find a drawing they remember leaving there from back when they were kids…a drawing that doesn’t seem to have aged a day. This is just the beginning of the eeriness that creeps around every frame of the film as each piece of the puzzle unfolds, bit by bit. The Endless is a slow, calculated burn, and I’m sure there will be those critics that say those words that make me grit my teeth every time I hear them: that “nothing happens”. But they’d be wrong. Yes, The Endless is not a film that is particularly scary, and no, it is not the creature feature that Lovecraft fans may be drooling for. That’s not the style of Benson and Moorhead. These guys are similar to Guillermo Del Toro in that they tell stories which are more like dark fairy tales than straight up horror films. But don’t take that the wrong way, because between the unwavering commitment to a mysterious higher power by the members of the “cult” and the reveal of what is really going on here, there is plenty of creep factor to go around.
As hinted before, there is a STRONG Lovecraftian feel to The Endless. One of my favorite moments has to be the tradition of “the struggle” which the cult performs, a ceremony in which they hold onto one end of a rope as it is lifted high into the night sky, and they must show their true strength by fighting against this higher power in pulling the rope (metaphors, anyone?) The scene takes place shortly after the brother’s arrival at the camp, and lets the audience know that there is absolutely something strange going on here, and that something strange, whatever it is, is BIG. Later, the brothers discover that there are two moons lighting the camp, which often look like big glowing eyes staring down at them. The idea of a higher power that is always watching, always observing, plays heavily into the film, which means we as the audience never feel as if the brothers are safe. It gives the sense that there is always something lurking in the shadows. And because the film is what I would call “quiet” in many ways, taking its time to build story and atmosphere, it allows for Benson and Moorhead to lure you in before striking with the real terror.
Ultimately, though, the film is more about the brother’s separate journeys of self-discovery, regret, and acceptance. The greatest accomplishment of Benson and Moorhead, as with Spring, is bringing us on said journey with a relatable story and characters that force us to question our own lives and the beliefs we populate them with. I became fascinated from the beginning, when Aaron (Moorhead) says that he wants to go back to the cult, because even though it was something he and his brother escaped, those were “the good times”, and in his current life he’s broke, jobless, and leading a life that feels meaningless. It’s easy to see why someone would fall into that sort of trap. It’s common for human beings to sacrifice moral beliefs for the gratification of acceptance, so it’s no wonder that Aaron is able to throw caution to the wind, unlike his brother. Justin (Benson) has an increasingly more and more difficult time convincing his brother to leave, to the point where Aaron even says that, if he is going to die in this place, “dying just takes a second, and a shitty life is long”. We’ve all probably been on one end of this conversation, either as an addict or with an addict. Its logical, in moments of desperation, to prefer a quick release from the long hours of painful existence, just as its normal to want so badly to make someone see that life is worth living, no matter what, which makes the foil of the two brother’s personalities so fascinating to watch.
(SPOILERS) If you don’t mind me going off the deep end for a moment, I’d like to offer my theory on the hidden theme of The Endless. While I could certainly be wrong, I also began to wonder if The Endless is an allegory about coming out as a gay man in a society that still hasn’t become as accepting as it should be. When you think about it, this story is about Justin (the conservative one) trying to prevent Aaron (the more liberal/open minded one), from opening himself to a lifestyle that seems foreign and strange to Justin. Going along with the acceptance theme, the line quoted above could also be taken as Aaron saying what’s one moment of pain in admitting who he is, over a lifetime of being someone he is not? This is, after all, a film about self-discovery, and in the end, all the brother’s need to escape the force which has them trapped in a time loop of reliving the same thing day in and day out is for Justin to accept his brother for who he is and allow him to be himself, rather than always trying to protect him from the world. The fact that the “cult” seems almost happy that Justin and Aaron escape makes me feel as if that was the intention all along, for Justin and Aaron simply to find that peace by tearing down the walls they had put up between each other by ignoring who each other is. And let’s not forget the moment Aaron tells Justin that he “slept with” potential love interest Anna (Callie Hernandez), which Justin at first congratulates him on, before finding out that Justin literally meant he slept in bed with her. He’s even confused why Justin would think they had sex, as if that’s something that would never happen. (END SPOILERS)
Maybe that theory is right, or maybe I’m so far off the deep end I’m hanging out with Dagon at the bottom of the ocean. But this I know for sure: The Endless is a beautiful, existential wonder that takes its audience on a journey of self-reflection that will have them thinking about their own lives long after the credits are finished rolling. Its one that is eerie, awe-inspiring, and greatly rewarding. Benson and Moorhead don’t make “horror movies”. They make gorgeous works of art out of darkness that are meant to be studied and talked about. Don’t miss this one. It would be best not to anger the ever-watchful Old Ones.
By Matt Konopka