If you don’t already know the names of Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead – the brains behind this year’s most ingenious indie sci-fi hit – then listen up. The pair have already gained a small cult following and, as a result, have been offered to remake old-school horror classics, which is often the case with studios looking to snap up the latest directing talent. However, they’ve turned these opportunities down, in favour of crafting smart sci-fi features on a shoestring budget. With the lack of constraints from a big-budget studio, the pair have let loose with wacky and subversive ideas – and The Endless, which is currently on limited release across the UK, is no exception.
Benson and Moorhead impressed critics with their two previous films: Resolution (2012) and Spring (2013). Their debut was a meta-exploration of the horror genre, playing with the audience’s expectations of narrative and time. Spring, their sophomore film, was a weird and wonderful horror romance, with the protagonist falling in love with a woman with a dark secret: she’s a monster that grows fur, teeth, and tentacles (think The Shape of Water with a few more kinks.) So far, the pair have ventured into the New Weird genre and have established themselves as vital, if low-key, voices of the post-slacker, post-punk horror movement. V/H/S signalled the start of this new trend – and the pair were both involved in the making of the final instalment. With The Endless, it’s great to see Benson and Moorhead sticking to their roots, expanding on their previous ideas without selling out to Hollywood fat cats.
The film opens with two brothers, played by the directors themselves, who are living dull lives after escaping a death cult in the desert. As they grow older, Aaron becomes dismayed with his banal routine and longs to return. So they decide to go back to where it all began, reigniting old memories, and leading them both to question what they left and why. They’re met with open arms, but something doesn’t feel right: there’s a sense of unease as they try to adapt to life in the commune and tension builds between the two brothers, as Aaron becomes more and more convinced to stay. To reveal any more is to do the film a disservice – it delights in subverting our expectations, taking the narrative in new and exciting directions, as the Lovecraftian and bizarre takes hold of the story.
Tonally, the film is similar to last year’s Get Out. Benson and Moorhead are hyper-aware of the genre’s tropes and subvert expectations, often with a sly wink: ‘You know how cult-y that sounds, right?’ they interject as the leaders accept them in. The film arrives amidst a critical climate where horror films are side-lined and ridiculed – and the only horror flicks to gain recognition aspire to something ‘more’ than their genre roots (see racial commentary in Get Out, HIV-satire It Follows, and middle-class family drama in Hereditary.) In this context, The Endless is a tonic in a genre riddled with snobbery. The directors have created an intelligent, engaging, and poignant film without having to expand their scope – and the film has had a smaller release, I suspect, as a result.
The Endless is a playful and funny film, but one cast in a shadow of darkness. Benson’s mother committed suicide just a few days before filming, which obviously had an influence on the film’s production. Like the characters in the film, the directors, too, used the cult as a form of therapy and emerge stronger as a result. With its looping, non-linear timeframe and Lovecraftian head-fuckery, Benson and Moorhead have crafted an experimental and surprising film about the ruts we get ourselves into. But, unlike most horror films, they also offer us a way out – which is a testament to Benson and Moorhead’s ability to surprise and inspire.
Words by Liam Taft