Nearly a year ago, The Endless made its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival. Since then, it’s picked up fest laurels and praise, leading it to a rare 100% Rotten Tomatoes rating as it rolls into theaters. But does this horror-thriller that’s been compared to The Babadook and It Follows live up to the hype? In a word, yes.
Now, here’s the part where I offer an array of disclaimers to clarify what I mean.
A 100% RT score does not mean a film is flawless, but rather that 100% of critics who submitted reviews submitted positive ones. The Endless is not like It Follows and The Babadook in tone or concept. Rather, it’s a leanly budgeted and sophisticated horror movie that takes audiences on a terrifying journey. Whether you liked or hated It Follows and The Babadook doesn’t guarantee you’ll dig what co-directors and co-stars Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead are laying out in The Endless. But if you appreciate when inventive filmmakers take an unexpected and emotionally wrought angle on horror, I suspect you’ll savor this film.
Benson and Moorhead front The Endless, playing a pair of brothers who ten years before escaped the clutches of a “UFO death cult” called Camp Arcadia. Since then, older brother Justin (Benson) has made decisions, leading himself and younger bro Aaron (Moorhead) to become lonely L.A. housecleaners, scraping by in a shabby apartment, and eating 99-cent store ramen. This quiet desperation nurtures Aaron’s nostalgia for the cult, which he remembers as a loving commune with warm smiles and fresh vegetables. So when the brothers’ receive a videotape from one of the members inviting them to return, Aaron is eager to go. Justin is warier but decides a day trip wouldn’t be the end of the world.
Camp Arcadia is a filled with happy smiling hipster-types, who brew their own beer, favor thrift store finds or self-made clothes, and happily live off the grid in a lakeside retreat that seems almost perfectly lovely. Aaron is instantly enchanted, quickly convinced Justin was wrong about this group being a suicide-cult dedicated to some otherworldly beast. After all, they’re still alive! And they look so healthy and young as if they haven’t aged a bit in the last decade. But Justin remains suspicious, and as their trip extends from one day to another, strange occurrences suggest there is more to Camp Arcadia than meets the eye.
Penned by Benson and shot by Moorehead, The Endless is a remarkable collaboration that neatly blends together script and visuals, without ever feeling like its aim has surpassed its budget’s means. Guarded conversations give way to reveals of a second moon, invisible barriers, and something large and unnerving lurking in the lake. There’s a shrewd restraint in the spectacle. But because so much of the story is about what the brothers’ choose to see or ignore, this works within its themes, instead of feeling like cheap corner-cutting. And it builds a sense of dread, making audiences tremble about what exactly is hiding behind those tremble trees, in the dark, or just out of frame.
This is not a wall-to-wall thrill ride rife with jump scares or splattered with gore. Admittedly, things start slow, because The Endless is not just a mystery about what’s in the lake. It’s chiefly a story about two brothers whose lives together have become a snarl of love, resentment, and regret. Untangling this to free each other from the ties that don’t just bind but strangle, that becomes crucial in their survival of this curious retreat. But building this groundwork takes time, and can feel a bit tedious.
Okay, I’ll be frank. Because of the buzz, I anticipated The Endless would grab me right out the gate. It didn’t, despite the compelling performances Benson and Moorehead deliver as embittered brothers. But once this grounded and earnest family drama branches out beyond the tight-knit circle of Camp Arcadia and into the nearby cabins, this story quickly turns slippery with sci-fi mystique, jaw-dropping scenes, and haunting performances. One sequence, in particular, involving two friends trying desperately to break a cycle of abuse concludes with a shot that is downright heart-stopping.
The Endless feels like a thunderstorm. It brews slowly, softly, and then in the blink of an eye, has consumed you, booming with fury and jaw-dropping force. Benson and Moorhead wrote, shot, directed and starred in this inventive and original indie horror film, and managed to make something lean, electrifying, surprising, poignant, and deeply chilling. It never feels limited by them or its budget. Instead, The Endless marks another entry in how arthouse horror is subtly, beautifully elevating the expectations of this long-derided genre.
Here’s the trailer. But be warned: serious spoilers within.
The Endless opens April 6th.