THE ENDLESS (15)
Screenplay: Justin Benson
Review: RJ Bland
Cults eh? They seem to be something we're a bit fascinated with at the moment (as well as stories about people going 'missing'.) It's probably down to the rise of religious extremism and the fact that in today's world, it poses a very real threat. Horror movies allow us to explore our fears of people doing scary things in the name of something greater than themselves. Satanists, pagans, obscure demon worshippers – there's a whole range of crazies out there. Well, you can add another one to that list thanks to recently released sci-fi horror The Endless – UFO death cultists! Genre fans will already be familiar with film making duo Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead. The pair's first feature, the genre bending Resolution (2013), put them on the genre map and they quickly followed this up with the critically acclaimed horror/romance Spring. We've had to wait four years for their latest foray into the fantastic but finally we have it. And boy is it weird...
After escaping a 'UFO death cult', brothers Justin and Aaron (played by Benson and Moorhead – is there anything they can't do?!) are trapped in a rather turgid existence in Los Angeles. Neither have managed to make any lasting connections or relationships but whilst Justin is just pleased to be living amongst 'regular' people, Aaron remembers his childhood with nostalgic longing. One day a cryptic videotape apparently shot by one of the cult members arrives through the door and after some debate, Justin relents and agrees to accompany his brother back to the mountains and to the cult that they escaped from ten years ago. At first, the commune seems rather serene and blissful. The brothers are welcomed back and reunited with former friends and 'family members'. They eat organic veg, they do karaoke, they drink beer and stuff – everything's going great! But not everything is quite as it seems. Why don't the cult members appear to have aged at all, what is with the weird game of tug of war with an unseen presence in the sky and why are there cryptic photographs appearing out of nowhere? All will be revealed...well, kinda.
In a world full of sequels and reboots and prequels and franchises, originality is something that's in short supply, and the heady concoction of comedy, sci-fi, Lovecraft, drama and horror acts as something of an antidote to the blandness of a lot of what currently fills our cinemas. Sure, The Endless may subconsciously reference other stories and writers from the past but the truth is that it's virtually impossible to be completely original when so much has already been done and written. But at least all three of Benson/Moorhead's features have given us something a bit different, something a bit off-kilter and fresh.
But originality is not the only appeal of the duo's latest mind-bending movie – in fact there's an awful lot to like and admire. First off, the film looks beautiful. To handle such big concepts on such a small budget is hugely impressive and the mixture of eerily beautiful vistas and documentarian segments work together really well. The script is what you would expect from Benson and Moorhead. At times it's dry and offbeat (conversations about the definition of 'Pedophiles' a prime example) but it's also capable of being rather profound without being too blunt or pretentious. Our preconceived ideas of cults and what constitutes a meaningful or interesting life are all touched upon here, but subtly so. There's a focus on symmetry, reptition, mirrors, circles – it's an almost geometric or mathematical fascination, which is nicely illustrated by cult leader Hal's equation that he has drawn up on the blackboard. 'What does it show?' Justin asks. Hal tells him he wouldn't understand it even if he could tell him. James Lavey's synthy score is a perfect fit too for the otherworldly themes that run throughout the story.
The Endless is not really a straight up horror film to be perfectly honest, preferring to eschew jump scares and gore for a palpable sense of mystery and unease. The further the film goes on, the more it enters into proper Lovecraftian sci-fi territory. As mentioned before, the UFO death cult aspect is not quite as sinister as it seems and the horror elements come from the sheer perplexity of the situation and the 'unknown' antagonistic force. To say more would be to spoil it and it's probably advisable to go in knowing as little as possible (please, keep on reading this review though!). It's slow burn stuff which, although it never gets under your skin, certainly worms it's way into your brain and will have you asking questions when you're done. A second watch feels almost necessary.
Not only do Moorhead and Benson succeed behind the camera (they have a hand in directing, writing, editing, production and cinematography!) they also deliver understated and naturalistic performances which keep things a little less ridiculous than they otherwise might be in less capable hands. Tragically, Benson's mother took her own life just days before shooting began – the fact this film even got made is a success story on it's own.
Indeed some may find the film too slow and ponderous and others will be unsatisfied by the lack of answers provided by the time the credits roll. Early on there is also some perfunctory info dumps that you have to grin and bear. However, those minor gripes aside, most fans of intelligent genre films will be mesmerised.