It really is a glorious time to be a horror fan. Once relegated to midnight broadcasts on cable channels and the whole of October at your local Cineplex, now it’s a whole new ballgame. In 2017 alone audiences had Get Out in February, Alien: Covenant in May and the fantastic It remake in October. This, of course, doesn’t include all the films available on streaming services like Hulu or Netflix, for general audiences, and Shudder, for those with more particular tastes. Though 2018 is still revealing itself cinematically, the John Krasinski-directed A Quiet Place opened this year’s SXSW festival – a clear clarion call that audiences are ready for their twisted tales to enter the main stage. Thus far, though, if you want your brain twisted properly, the films on the independent circuit should not be ignored. The latest release from directors Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson - The Endless (2017) – fits the bill perfectly. The Endless is a supernatural-infused thriller with a tight story, masterful cinematography, and nubilous dialogue that’ll have you questioning everything from start to finish.
Two brothers, Justin and Aaron (played by the directors), can’t seem to fit in with the rest of society. It’s not because they’re bad guys, it’s that they grew up on a commune whose members believed in an all-powerful entity, one which would bring about their Ascension. When out of nowhere Aaron receives a mysterious package from one of the residents of Camp Arcadia, his deep longing to return to the place they fled ten years prior inspires him to convince his brother to go back for one overnight stay. Upon arrival, everything seems just as they left it, which is both reassuring for Aaron and gravely disquieting for Justin – a reasonable discomfort because the longer they stay, the less likely they’ll ever leave for the Ascension grows closer by the day.
Movies like The Endless (2017) succeed for a number of different reasons. Sometimes they hit at the right time or they have a perfect cast, perfect story, perfect – whatever – and the audience just eats it all up. For some, it feels like capturing lightning in a bottle. That’s what The Endless feels like – as if Benson’s script utilizes every single possible element to culminate in a film that’s electric. The premise is, on the surface, fairly generic: two brothers with a checkered past return to the place of torment and discover…something. It’s a standard horror trope and it’s one they play to their advantage. Everything in The Endless is about perception and once the brothers reach Camp Arcadia, theirs (and therefore the audience’s) is almost immediately challenged. Is what you’re witnessing real or just a trick? Is something supernatural going on or merely human evil? Is there a reason that every person at Camp Arcadia seems to talk out of both sides of their mouth or are we imagining it? Combined with some subtle technical work in the cinematography and special effects, The Endless quickly becomes downright unsettling.
We know something’s going on at Camp Arcadia. Justin knows it, the members of the camp allude to it, and Aaron creates excuses for it. But something strange is afoot and scenes are beautifully manipulated by Moorhead and Benson to reflect the fluctuating rules of reality so that the audience is just as off-kilter as Justin. In one scene, Justin’s disorientation is conveyed through a slow pan looking in all directions. This alone is fairly standard, but they add a slight fish-eye, bending what we see as if Justin’s surroundings are undulating under some unknown force. Later that night, when Justin approaches Hal (Tate Ellington), the presumed leader of the camp, about his concerns with goings-on at Arcadia, the edges of the screen repeat the rounded edges, but this time they’re darker as though the night itself were closing in on Justin. This effect reappears on the second night of their stay as a calm conversation escalates to anger as hidden truths are revealed, but this time the darkness no longer appears to live on the edges, rather, it nearly consumes the entire screen focusing all we see on the three men screaming at one another. It’s claustrophobic, emotionally heightening, and adds an existential dread as the walls of reality seem to close in on them, metaphorically and literally.
A solid story and some nifty camera tricks don’t make a movie succeed unless the cast meshes too. Moorhead and Benson easily shift between serious dramatic moments that an interpersonal drama requires while sliding seamlessly into the kind of brotherly bickering that makes the relationship between Justin and Aaron feel real. Gratefully, the members of Camp Arcadia are no slouches either, and this is an area of the narrative that needs to be handled with the utmost care – if they trend too comical or too frightening, the blurred line of who they are becomes far clearer and the tension is gone. So whether it’s Ellington’s infinitely patient leader; Callie Hernandez’s Anna, a clothing designer with a sweet spot for Aaron; Lew Temple’s guarded Tim, brew master and guardian of Arcadia’s secrets; or even Kira Powell’s Lizzy, a recovering mental patient who found refuge within compound – each performance is deftly handled to straddle the line between illusive menace and benevolent caretaker. As stated before, The Endless (2017) is all about perception and as long as the audience is kept off-guard along with Justin, it’s an intense experience that keeps you locked in. However, as the story approaches its third act, there’s a tonal shift away from the tense, nightmare state and toward comedy, almost in an Evil Dead 2: Dead By Dawn form of absurdity that removes much tension from the narrative. Impressively, this switch doesn’t slow down the narrative by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, in this portion of the film, the emotional weight only grows heavier. Yet, this change in tone is so drastically different from what we’ve tracked up to this point that the film takes on a different feel from the straight-forward supernatural thriller and becomes more of a supernatural dramedy.
While out-right horror films aren’t this reviewers bag, recent films like Don’t Breathe, Unsane, and the aforementioned Get Out represent a shift in the public’s view of horror. Audiences want more than the usual hack n’ slash or ghostly possession. They want more than supernatural vendettas against the living or cursed objects run amok. They want something that’s going to walk the line between the world we exist within and the world that’s just on the edges of our perception. They want the kind of story that’ll make them wonder what lies just on the edge of the shadows or swims beneath the waves. They want The Endless (2017).
Final Score: 8 out of 10.
Do you like your tales of other-worldly influence more bloody, more thoughtful, or both? Any films coming that you can’t wait to see?
The Endless • In Theaters Now • Runtime 1:52 • Rating NR