“The Endless” is the third movie from directorial duo Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead, whose last two films have collectively broken from the usual tropes and trappings of horror for dramas that have been comparatively more dynamic and satisfying in storytelling than a lot of horror films. Right from Benson and Moorhead’s breakout debut in the criminally underknown “Resolution” (2013), the duo is known for bending—and sometimes even breaking—the many unwritten rules of Horror 101. That isn’t to say traditional horror as a storytelling medium doesn’t stand a chance, but it has given courage to leading mainstream filmmakers to see their projects through until their fruition. But I digress.
Much like their sophomore Before-Sunrise-meets-Lovecraft hybrid “Spring” (2015), “The Endless” takes its viewers through a tour of some of their inspiration’s many obsessions—isolation, the fragility of mental sanity, and existentialism nihilism, among a few other things. In trademark fashion, the film explores the act of running away from civilization; except for a significant reversal: the two brothers are traveling back to a cult they broke out of years ago. Trauma has a unique role to play here, especially in that there’s a lot that a difference in a narrative can do to people. The younger brother Aaron (Moorhead), remembers his life in the cult as full of sunshine and good food. The older one’s memories of it are starkly different.
Their polarizing reactions to the McGuffin that set their misadventure in motion—a seemingly innocuous tape sent from within the cult—are vital to how the story unfolds. What the pair pick up on when they’re back in Camp Arcadia is strongly dictated by how they felt about the cult before they fled. The older one picks up on some strongly discomforting events around them—like a walking loner who avoids Justin on his jogs or the creepy smiling dude in a blinding-white shirt that just never seems to crease, for example—and the younger one finds acceptance and freedom the real world can’t give him. Aaron has a harmless crush on one of the cult’s members and actively participates in its many rites, as it gives him a purpose “the real world” could never provide him.
Refreshingly, “The Endless,” however, doesn’t antagonize the active members of Arcadia. Sure, there’s a general sense of glazed-eye emotional discomfort—and boy, the creeps are stellar when the protagonists are around humans with vacant stares—but they’re just ordinary people. They’ve all got fears, needs, and the like. Hal (Tate Ellington; “Sinister 2,” 2015), the “leader” (or not, because the camp claims it doesn’t have a leader), possesses a satisfying, almost human, level of multidimensional nature, unlike John Hawkes’s predatory Patrick in “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” or Colonia Dignidad’s Paul Schäfer (reprised with chilling accuracy by Michael Nyqvist in “Colonia”).
The horror in this film depends highly on its setup of a sinister atmosphere—and for a good reason. The camerawork wants you to think its narrative is omniscient. Yet, Benson and Moorhead cheat by throwing in some perspective, thanks to the terrific soundscapes of Jimmy “The Album Leaf” LaValle, whose surreal ambient sounds range from dreamy to nightmarish with transitions so smooth you’d know if your journey swerved from a stairway to heaven to the highway to hell. Everything about this film is so well thought out that you can’t but wonder about the mental energy the duo spent on attention to detail while world-building. The performances in this film range from understated ambiguity to absolute brilliance, but look through the layers of the vagueness, and you’ll find it was all for a reason. Then again, the film wasn’t trying to stick to the traditional rules of a horror narrative; it’s always wanted to be more than just that. And it is.
However, how much viewers love “The Endless” depends on their tastes. It’s a horror film that subverts most traditional conventions for an experience as diverse as it is satisfying. In trademark Benson-Moorhead fashion, the film is a genre-fluid experience that boldly chooses not to be bound by horror restrictions, instead allowing its viewers to relate to the emotion that hits home the hardest. Sure, if we’re to take anything from the outraged response to Colin Trevorrow’s “The Book of Henry” (2017), genre-benders will always be ahead of their time. That, however, can never take away from what a masterfully crafted tribute to Lovecraft this feels like, apart from being a pitch-perfect film with the kind of conviction you don’t often see in movies these days.