Like a two-headed Shane Carruth, Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead are the multi-hyphenate filmmakers behind clever found-footage movie Resolution (2012), and sort-of psychotronic Before Sunset, Spring (2014). And like Spring, their latest effort – a sci-fi/horror with Lovecraftian undertones – combines a barrel-scraping budget with sky-scraping ambition.
Using their real first names for added verisimilitude, Moorhead and Benson play brothers who escaped a Californian “UFO death cult” as youngsters. They now eke out a grim existence as cleaners, but are always “one dirty house away from being homeless”. Sweet, but slightly odd, they’re living the half-lives of the traumatised; their relationship equal parts squabbling and shell-shock. Cutaways show us their continuing deprogramming sessions. “Have you talked to him about it?” Justin is asked. “No,” he says, incredulous. “He’s my brother.” Anyone with close siblings will recognise the constant tug-of-war.
When a videotape arrives featuring clearly-not-dead cult member Anna (Callie Hernandez), Aaron, the younger of the two, pleads to return. “Have fun with that,” warns Justin. Still, back to the cult they go...
Under the watchful eye of semi-leader Hal (Tate Ellington), Camp Arcadia is all bonhomie, home-brewed beer and bonfires, but something’s not quite right. The film adopts a serenely ominous tone helped by natural performances and Moorhead’s lovely, heat-haze cinematography. As in Spring, there’s a tendency to over-rely on drone shots, and some of the SFX look a little home-made, but it’s hard to lambast such innovative filmmakers when so many blockbusters are purely driven by weightless flash and dazzle.
Where we’re heading is impossible to guess. Indeed, some viewers may find themselves scratching their heads long after the credits. But the journey of discovery is always gripping, and shot through with symbols that take on metaphorical import, even if the exact meaning is hard to pin down.
Throughout, we’re shown images of circularity: a bonfire from above, vinyl spinning, weed smoke passing between people. These seem to suggest the Purgatorial circles of everyday life; the patterns we can’t escape. On this basis, it’s obvious why the cult members renounce the outside world for the promise of an earthly paradise. Even so, the film remains clear-eyed about the pull of religion and nostalgia.
We’ve glimpsed behind the gates before, of course – notably in The Sacrament, Martha Marcy May Marlene and V/H/S/2 – but The Endless is a different beast: original, unhurried and, considering the resources, often staggering.
- Release date: Out now (US)/June 29, 2018 (UK)
- Certificate: R (US)/15 (UK)
- Running time: 111 mins