By: Hawk Ripjaw (A Toast) –
Directors Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson are doing something crazy–they’re building a sci-fi horror cinematic universe on a shoestring budget and connecting all of them via characters, references, and events. It’s not to the point where you have to have seen their previous films Resolution and Spring to enjoy their latest, but it adds a bit of flavor to some of this film’s events. Regardless, The Endless is one of the most thoughtful, memorable, and frightening films of the year.
It’s been a decade since brothers Aaron and Justin (Moorhead and Benson, keeping their first names as the main characters) escaped from a Southern California cult that helped raise them, and they still haven’t fully adjusted to civilian life—they hold menial jobs as house cleaners, and they don’t have much luck with women. Aaron still feels somewhat drawn to the cult, remembering it as a friendly place with good food and a strong community.
The brothers suddenly receive a video from one of the members of the cult, inviting them back to Camp Arcadia for a major event dubbed “The Ascension.” For the sake of closure and the lack of anything else noteworthy in their lives, brothers decide to get that closure via one more night with the group. Upon arriving, they are greeted warmly by the community and invited back unconditionally with a meal and a place to sleep. Something remains off: no one at Camp Arcadia has aged since Justin and Aaron left them, and no one knows anything about having sent a video. The cult still seems to exist in servitude to some sort of cosmic entity, which sets Justin on edge. He wants to go home, but Aaron believes he may have found his.
One of the major tenets of cosmic horror is, as Lovecraft says, the fear of the unknown- of being afraid of something whose magnitude isn’t even comprehensible by the human mind. The Endless jangles the nerves firstly on the depression and doubt in the main characters, what they’ve seen but we haven’t, and how that influences them & us. It operates almost solely on the broad strokes and hints of something horrifying and lets the audience’s imagination fill in the rest. Moorhead and Benson, who also fill cinematographer’s and writer’s roles respectively, know exactly which screws to turn to play into viewers’ apprehensions.
It also appears to be operating on a very small budget, and instead of using shoddy bargain effects, the film instead opts to play into that fear of the unknown through skillful use of framing, movement, and sound design. A fantastic early scene involves an exercise called “The Struggle,” in which members take turns pulling on a rope stretching off into the darkness where something pulls back. The actual mechanics of this exercise aren’t initially explained, but the fact that the source of the rope appears to be reaching into the inky sky somewhat near an orange moon is genuinely unnerving.
Cult psychology is also explored very well in The Endless. Initially, the cult is, sight-unseen, objectively sinister. Yet once the brothers return to the park, they’re greeted warmly by smiling faces and friendly characters that feel normal enough (besides that they don’t seem to have aged). These aren’t fanatics; they’re people who live together with a functioning economy, strong fellowship, and unconditional kindness. There’s a push-and-pull to this, as these apparently good-hearted people still live in an area that is almost definitely tainted by some sort of cosmic horror and something is definitely wrong. An excellent dichotomy is built where horrific things are consistently hinted at while the community normalizes them by treating them as a regular part of their lifestyle. Initially, Aaron and Justin question whether they were right to even paint the community as a cult of crazies, since their first day and night back is not only normal, but comfortable.
The second half of The Endless is where things really start to get weird, as new, quirky characters help shed more light on the cosmic trappings of the area and the behaviors of characters from earlier in the film make more sense. Moorhead and Benson take deliberate steps both large and subtle to instill unease: birds exhibit abnormal flight patterns, and the minimal focus on technology creepily robs the movie of an obvious time period. There are mild strokes of humor, which don’t deflate the tension so much as make the human characters more believable as people, boosting realism.
There isn’t really a major earth-shattering revelation or sudden pull of the rug in The Endless. Instead, there’s a sort of chilly, matter-of-factness to how it slowly draws back the curtain on the entity dominating the community through smaller twists and reveals. These continue to build on each other as things get progressively more wrong, but by then it’s almost impossible to look away from, and the brothers likewise continue to look for answers.
The Endless slowly worms its way into your head with deliberate pacing and the constant, uneasy reminder that we are not alone: the unseen force dominating the community isn’t a typical horror film antagonist. It cannot be killed or fled from, and it can’t really be explained. It just is, which has horrific implications that linger long after watching. Similarly, it reflects our own inescapable cycles of self-destruction.
Moorhead and Benson’s brilliant less-is-more approach gives it profound staying power: while the visceral fear of what you can see eventually fades away, the horror of what you can only imagine sticks with you. A week after watching it, I still feel uneasy.
The Endless (2018) Movie Drinking Game
Take a Drink: whenever someone says “cult” or “cult-y.”
Do a Shot: whenever something in the sky doesn’t feel quite right.
Take a Drink: for each time something is sinister and unseen.
Do a Shot: for every time circle imagery is used.