DC-area residents: The Endless starts playing at the Angelika Pop-Up at Union Market in DC on April 20, 2018.
Independent horror has given us such delights as Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street, It Follows, and now, The Endless. The Endless is a ruthless and low-key charmer, very simple in its conceits and cunningly deceptive in its aims. Engaging and thrilling, this film celebrates memory and time being the most unreliable of narrators, and it shows no mercy as it starts at arm’s length and draws you in at its own maddening pace.
It’s a curious concoction of supernatural and cult horror, full of the unexpected, terrifying, humorous, and beguiling. At no time is there any rest from the constant unease set up by the exposition given to us by “UFO death cult” escapee brothers Aaron (Aaron Moorhead) and Justin Smith (Justin Benson). We’ve seen it all before, with these ex-cult members trying to eke out a life after leaving Camp Arcadia, a collective dedicated to rather nebulous beliefs.
But we’re kept completely in the dark as to what drives the folks in Camp Arcadia; Justin, the more well-adjusted one of the two says it involved UFOs and castration, leaving him no choice but to get his brother out of there. But when a mysterious Hi-8 videotape bearing a message from a female cult member shows up at their door, Aaron – the more sensitive and tender brother – expresses a wish to go back to see who sent it and why.
It’s a scary thing that Aaron would even want to go back – they’re both undergoing deprogramming sessions, and Justin thinks this step backward is something they don’t need. After reluctantly giving into his brother’s request, Justin drives them into the woods to put this whole thing behind them with clarity and fresh eyes. But instead of Heaven’s Gate-esque tinfoil hat-wearing, wide-eyed creeps, they find fairly normal people, albeit a little hippie-ish and eccentric.
Due to our peeks into Justin and Aaron’s therapy sessions and from what we can see, the whole first act is spent on edge. We’re just waiting for the chanting, the weird leader to spout crazy-eyed nonsense, the ritual blood sacrifice, or maybe even strange sexual deviance. The thing is… there’s really none of that. We start to get the sense something else is at play here, and it may be something far beyond our understanding, especially when a rope in a kind-of tug-of-war exercise called “Struggle” is anchored by an unseen force.
The exercises which Camp Arcadia leader Hal (Tate Ellington) orchestrates seem to be designed to tap into, brush the surface of, and make contact with this force, which I still don’t understand after two viewings. Sure, there’s some easy stuff to get, but The Endless winds up creating so many more questions than it can answer. But the beauty of the film is not having everything answered; it’s more about perception and how easily one can be manipulated. The film works its own manipulation on us, making us believe the Arcadians are a bunch of kooks when they’re kinda not. (Well, maybe that one dude who can’t stop smiling, but I guess you gotta have at least one of those guys around.)
The machinations of Camp Arcadia and the surrounding areas are revealed in a manner which keeps the viewer in a state somewhere between confusion and “Eureka!” It takes its time letting you know what you need to know, doling out its surprises at its own leisurely pace. The way this film unfurls its craziness is unlike anything you’ve ever seen, and it’s done with such a natural feel – owing a large debt to the actors’ performances and the organic progression of events – that you can’t help but buy into Justin and Aaron’s plight.
We also get a sense that it’s not just Justin and Aaron in trouble, but everyone in Camp Arcadia. The “Struggle” exercise was only one of a handful of moments which hint at the sword blade dangling over their heads. A mysterious outsider who seems to be on a very long and furious walk appears and disappears at the drop of a hat; this man, Shitty Carl (James Jordan – no lie, that’s his character’s name), may know more about what’s going on than the Camp Arcadia folks might, so keep your eyes on him, even if he may literally be at the end of his rope.
This is an obvious labor of love for both Benson and Moorhead – the former gets credit for the script, the latter is credited with cinematography, and both of them direct, along with other behind-the-camera roles. Each frame, carefully-selected word, and nuanced performance speaks of their brilliant storytelling prowess; they know how to involve us and keep us rooted, pulling off this Lovecraftian ode to family with style and purpose.
The Endless may not be what most people think of horror – it doesn’t have the blood-dripping knives, gruesome body count, or a psychotic killer behind it all. What it has, though, is an atmosphere so thick with tension and peril that even the actors themselves look like they’re suffocating under it. The Endless is an exemplary horror film, being more of an exercise in the infinite than the corporeal. It pulls no punches, but it doesn’t telegraph them, either; its deceptively laid-back nature gently reels you in before smacking you in the face, leaving its mark and making you feel it for a long time after.
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