Right off the bat, I’ll start by saying that not only am I a fan of the writing/directing team of Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead, I also predict they’re going to be big in the near future, whether that’s by continuing to make a name for themselves in the world of weird horror, or by succumbing to big money studio deals – and regardless of what I think of their newest movie The Endless. I urge you to seek out their previous two features, Resolution and Spring, and feel free to check out my spoiler free reviews before or after if you do. You’ll definitely want to see Resolution before The Endless, however.
So yeah, I’m a fan of these guys, and since I watched Spring in very early 2016, I eagerly awaited their third picture. If I recall correctly, they expressed interest in a movie about “the wickedest man in the world”, Aleister Crowley. As someone who’s harboured a lifelong fascination with Crowley, this should have been interesting to me, but I really just wanted to see more of the same originality Benson and Moorhead could bring to an original project, not just a biopic – although would it have been just a biopic? Hard to say, since they moved on to what became The Endless.
I think I’d been waiting for roughly a year since hearing about it. It did the indie circuit late in 2017 and went on wider release in March of 2018, garnering lots of great buzz. But to my knowledge, it didn’t come to the Twin Cities, so I had to wait another three months – would it live up to my own high expectations? The answer is, unfortunately, no.
Described as “two brothers return to the UFO death cult they escaped 10 years ago”, I have to say, I wasn’t super-excited by that brief premise. It threw up a question in my mind immediately – how can a death cult go on for another ten years? Doesn’t that contradict what a death cult should be? And if they escaped it, why wouldn’t the authorities have broken it up? It didn’t make a lot of sense to me. The movie does throw in a couple of small expository reasons, but they themselves are part of the reason why I didn’t feel this movie.
The plot is this: two brothers, Aaron and Justin (played by the moviemakers themselves) live dull lives, affected by their time with the cult. They appear to own a house cleaning business and seemingly have no other relationships in their lives other than themselves. After receiving a mysterious video cassette from someone in the cult, Aaron convinces Justin to join him on a day trip to the cult for closure, thinking maybe they will be finally able to move on in their lives. Right about here my Spidey sense was tingling. This was a “death cult”? You can just go back and get closure by saying goodbye?
The brothers eventually get there, and find it contains many of the members that were there when they left. It’s in much the same kind of hilly, dry, terrain outside of LA that their first movie Resolution was set. In that review I was pretty complimentary about how skillful they incorporated the environment into the movie, and they accomplished the same thing in the small Italian town setting of Spring. This time around, I didn’t feel that same sense of place. Far from being a “UFO death cult” (and here the quotes are appropriate), Camp Arcadia, as it’s known, just seems like a mostly uninteresting commune full of uninteresting characters. They get by in a minimalist, off-the-grid type way, brewing and selling their own brand of beer to raise money, but I didn’t get a sense of what else they do. Soon after they arrive, Aaron feels like he’s come home, but Justin retains some bitterness and cynicism that makes it impossible for him to reconnect. It’s here, in Act 2, that the odd things begin to happen, but they felt strangely familiar to me, and in a scene that comes towards the end of the act, my suspicions were confirmed. It was disappointing, but that feeling had begun to creep in early on – almost as soon as I saw Benson and Moorhead were playing the lead characters. Sometimes that can work, but it doesn’t work here – neither of them are any great shakes when it comes to acting. They’re a couple of acting classes better off than most low budget horror, but that’s it. I didn’t feel any sense of authenticity in their performances and I wondered what the hell were they thinking, given that they are more than capable of getting strong performances with their actors. Unless they literally couldn’t afford to hire actors, I found this to be annoyingly self-indulgent, and harmful to the movie itself.
Self-indulgency is my biggest criticism of the movie, but it’s a big one and goes beyond their self-casting. The only spoiler I’ll give here is that The Endless is strongly related to one of their prior movies – not a sequel as such, more of a continuation of the premise, and I thought it was a strange choice for them to take a literal step backwards in their careers at a point where they would be better off continuing to showcase their versatility. I’m sure a number of people were thrilled by this, but I’m not one of them. It doesn’t show that same nascent visionary status I could feel in Resolution or Spring. Having said that, I finished the movie with an understanding of what they were trying to do, and why the movie opens with a quote from HP Lovecraft. Not that the movie is lazily full of “Lovecraftian” tropes, but it does contain a glimmer of Lovecraftian concepts that will be mostly foreign to those who only have passing pop-culture references to go on. The idea that there are beings of immense power here on Earth is not completely original – fiction is riddled with the concept from Lovecraft to Harry Potter to comic books, but in The Endless, the presence is insidious, unknowable in intent, but also possessing a sense of black humour too – why else would it adopt such a voyeuristic means of communication with the characters in the movie? It also brings to mind an actual term that I’d forgotten about until I started thinking about this review: the concept of the Ultra-Terrestrial, a term coined by the author John Keel (The Mothman Prophecies), and used by a number of writers to describe certain kinds of supernatural phenomena. Here’s a pretty good article about Keel. Being possessed of no belief system of any kind of phenomenon, I am still hugely fascinated in all things weird, and I find the Ultra-Terrestrial concept absolutely riveting. Whether or not Benson and Moorhead actively adopted the concept I couldn’t say, but for me, the presence at the heart of the movie is by far the greatest part of it, and I loved the hinted-at implications of the being’s existence and what it means to the human being who encounter it.
Unfortunately, the bulk of the movie is a collection of dull, repetitive existential discussions between characters, most of which do not propel the plot, interconnected by moments of weirdness ranging from compelling (the sudden appearance of a couple of photographs) to uninvolving (the ending). The big-picture ambition of the movie is strong, but the execution is handcuffed by a low budget and the more than apparent self-indulgence of Benson and Moorhead, and I found them unable to do the movie the justice it needed.
© Andrew Hope, 2018