Common wisdom tells us that man is the simpler sex, but common observation tells otherwise. Thanks to social programming, we’re actually pretty complicated. Men are expected to be stoic take-charge sorts, and when you’re taught your whole life to keep your feelings on lockdown, you tend to make routine problems needlessly drawn out: Between two dudes, a dispute that might be resolved by talking turns into an indifferent endurance contest that can only be worked out in the face of certain death, and even then they’d still bust each other’s balls before saying “I love you, man.”
When you layer that aggravating macho reticence with sibling rivalry, the complications deepen. Brotherhood’s a trip. Just ask Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson, the horror filmmaking duo responsible for 2012’s Resolution, the “Bonestorm” segment in 2014’s VHS: Viral, and, in the same year, the tender creature romance Spring. Their latest, The Endless, is all about brotherhood couched in unfathomable terror of Lovecraftian proportions. The movie hinges on the petulant squabbles of boys, circular arguments that go nowhere because they’re caught in a perpetual loop of denial and projection. If the exchanges between its leads can be summed up in two words, those words are “no, you.” Boys will be boys, meaning boys will be obstinate and stubborn to the bitter end.
In The Endless, the end is uncertain, but maybe the title makes that a smidge obvious. Brothers Aaron and Justin Smith (played, respectively, by Moorhead and Benson, who gel so well as brothers that you’d swear they’re secretly related) were once members of a UFO death cult before escaping and readjusting to life’s vicissitudes: They clean houses for a living, subsist primarily on ramen, and rely so much on their car that Aaron’s repeated failure to replace the battery weighs on both of them like the heavens on Atlas’ shoulders. Then, out of the blue, they receive a tape in the mail from their former cultists, and at Aaron’s behest they revisit Camp Arcadia, the commune they once called home. He has unresolved feelings about their time spent with the cult, and persuades Justin to hit the road against the latter’s better judgment.
Aaron and Justin view their experiences at Arcadia through different lenses. To Aaron, Arcadia meant food, shelter, a place to lay their heads, and people to care for them. To Justin, Arcadia was a horror show run by a bunch of castrated lunatics with a collective death wish. On arrival, we get the feeling they’re both half-right: The cultists, represented for the most part by Hal (Tate Ellington) and Anna (Callie Hernandez), act normally enough, welcoming the Smiths back to Camp Arcadia with open arms, their long ago getaway not forgotten but forgiven. They’re an amiable bunch. They brew their own beer, too, for personal consumption as well as commercial sale. (Their brewmaster makes a mean Hefeweizen.) But if you’ve seen any horror film involving cults, you’re on high alert the moment Moorhead and Benson take us to the camp.
Not all is well here: Bizarre bonelike poles litter Arcadia’s outskirts, flocks of birds teleport from one spot to another in the time it takes to blink, Aaron and Justin keep having weird déjà vu moments, and worse: There’s something in the lake, a massive, inky, inexplicable presence just below the surface. (Its image is only seen on camera once, but once is enough to make an impression.) The Endless isn’t a pulse pounder. On its face, the film is designed to tickle the brain first and rattle cages second. As Benson poses more and more questions through his screenplay, and as Aaron and Justin explore the mysteries of Arcadia, the more a sense of unease and outright fear infects the viewing experience. We don’t know what secrets Arcadia holds, but we sense their catastrophic implications all the same. In keeping with H.P. Lovecraft’s influence, The Endless deals in peril on a scale that’s nigh incomprehensible.
Woven through the film’s eldritch dread are Moorhead and Benson. Their characters are locked in a cosmic struggle with a nameless adversary, but the narrative’s gaze is focused inward: On the Smiths, on brothers, on how far a relationship must stretch before it can be repaired. Intimacy is a staple element of Moorhead and Benson’s filmograpy, best demonstrated in Spring’s fraught love story between a man and a mutant. Here, the intimacy is fraternal, which perhaps speaks to how Moorhead and Benson feel about each other. They may not be brothers themselves, but you can’t spend your career making movies with the same person over and over again without developing an abiding, unspoken bond with them. It’s easy to imagine them arguing over on-set minutiae, and it’s just as easy to imagine those arguments forming the bases for the Smith’s frequent disagreements.
In The Endless, Moorhead and Benson show how sustained paranoia and foreboding can keep an audience hooked as effectively as special effects (though if the effects in the film are sparse, they’re no less potent for it). But it’s the function of the movie’s overriding theme that makes it hit home. If you have a brother, take him to The Endless; it might just help you understand each other better, and if that doesn’t happen, at least you can enjoy being scared together.
Directors: Aaron Moorhead, Justin Benson
Writer: Justin Benson
Starring: Aaron Moorhead, Justin Benson, Callie Hernandez, Tate Ellington, Lew Temple, Kira Powell, James Jordan, Shane Brady
Release Date: April 6, 2018
Boston-based culture writer Andy Crump has been writing about film and television online since 2009, and has been contributing to Paste since 2013. He also writes words for The Playlist,WBUR’s The ARTery, Slant Magazine, The Hollywood Reporter, Polygon, Thrillist, and Vulture, and is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and the Boston Online Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.