By Elias Savada.
I’ve been a fan of horror maestros Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead ever since catching their 2012 feature debut Resolution at that year’s SpookyFest in Washington DC. Last year that festival (following the lead of the Tribeca Film Festival, where the filmmakers are deservedly well appreciated) also sported the Washington premiere of The Endless, which is back for its initial commercial run at a local arthouse cinema. It’s definitely worth seeking out for the big screen thrills that the film affords.
While the producing-directing-writing-editor-and-even-acting duo (foregoing the latter in their 2014 horror romance comedy Spring), conceived of their UFO Death Cult characters (as brothers Justin and Aaron) in Resolution, as the Smith brothers, they take their story back to the first film’s roots and provide an enervating sequel that is mind bending and edgy. Most of the cast (Peter Cilella, Vinny Curran, Emily Montague , David Lawson, Jr., Glen Roberts) has returned for the re-visit the siblings make to the remote cult encampment that might be worth debunking. Or not.
The Lovecraftian uneasiness of this provocative piece is a slow build. It’s not constructed upon a base of gore, but on the fear of the unknown. It begins with a well-worn, world-weary parcel that, despite the Priority Mail sticker, it looks…off. Czech and French airmail stickers, a Japanese label, and stamps of George Washington that look many decades old. The inside is stuffed with old, yellowed newspaper, wrapped around a small, cracked video cassette that looks like it barely survived a few wars. (The Digital Artifact – Big-Brother-Is-Watching motif runs throughout the film.) As Aaron seeks the right player at a yard sale, he’s reminded by Justin (on an equally ancient flip phone) to get a new car battery. Yeah, that plays out in the story, too. In the meantime, let’s watch the videotape.
It’s a call out for the intrigued and too gullible Aaron to return to the place his brother rescued him from back in 2006. According to “news” footage showcasing an escape from the bizarre cult with “strange descriptions of rituals, castration, impending mass suicide,” it’s been impossible for them to move on with their still shitty lives. The images on the videotape suggests the poisoned lemonade went unswallowed. Maybe it’s time for a road trip?
Of course it is. This is a horror movie and people like the Smiths are compelled to follow the whims of the script. Still dealing with repercussions from their earlier run ins with the cult (Aaron, via a distorted memory: “It’s not a cult! It’s a commune!”) or their (lack of) money issues.
It’s not long before the creepiness begins. Flocks of birds offer up strange formations. Weird rock piles (similar to the spired hoodoos found at Bryce Canyon National Park) suggest an alien presence. And much if it delivered in the faux realistic sci-fi tableau made familiar in District 9 (2009). Add in a well-executed production and sound design, original music by Jimmy Lavalle, and both scenery and story become very earthy and exceedingly spooky.
At Camp Arcadia, the residents (well, most of them) seem content to jog, bike, play chess, enjoy good food, and many kegs of craft beer. A healthy looking bunch. Hal (Tate Ellington) is the tenuous leader and resident magician (with quite a few unworldly tricks up his sleeve). Anna (Callie Hernandez) is the pretty village seamstress and potential squeeze for Aaron. Chris Daniels (Peter Cilella) returns, briefly, opposite Mike Danube as his cellmate, reprising his role as a handcuffed addict trying to kick his habit. Lizzy (Kira Powell) wandered in from a nearby mental facility, trading in lithium, Thorazine, and PCP for the insane California wilderness antics that unfold in this nearly two-hour time-space-reality brain fuck.
Moorhead, who photographed this micro-budget miracle, captures the dusty landscape with an eerie, hand-held atmosphere that sends your goosebumps into hyperdrive. No one captures the lunar manifestation in the midsummer sky like he does.
As the story becomes more unsettling, it’s fun to watch how the filmmakers weave their characters into this mind-bending world. Yes, some of the same folks repeat their roles (in an amusing, offbeat way) from the earlier film, but The Endless works just fine for those of you who missed the opening salvo in the Benson-Moorhead universe.
When one character makes casual remarks about history repeating itself, right after one of the commune’s members is found both dead by hanging while also ranting outside his cabin, the dead of night seems to be the least of the brothers’ worries as they try to figure out how this loopy spit of nature will rate on their cosmic scorecard. It seems they’ll be reconsidering the evaluation it earned a decade earlier. Aaron inquires, “Is there anything I need to worry about,” half-way into the film.
I certainly hope so, because someone or something’s watching. And the horror handymen who have pieced together this well photographed and edited movie seem to have crafted a real neat psychological thriller.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He is an executive producer of the horror film German Angst and the new documentary Nuts! He co-authored, with David J. Skal, Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning (the revised edition will be published in 2018 by Centipede Press).