The filmmaking team of Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson truly know how to take a relatively simple idea — two escaped cult members returning to that cult — and turn it into a masterpiece of suspense, thrills, and meta-horror.
In The Endless, Moorhead and Benson star as Aaron and Justin, two brothers who are attempting to lead normal lives years after escaping as teenagers from a “UFO death cult” in the middle of the desert. They share a small apartment, an unreliable car and spend their days working for a cleaning company so they can afford to eat ramen noodles for every meal.
The brothers have no friends and can’t seem to meet any girls. For the elder brother, Justin, life is miserable but tolerable. He understands that they are better off living on the outside of “Camp Arcadia” than being trapped within the confines of the restrictive, deity-worshipping cult. He doesn’t regret his decision to leave.
Aaron, on the other hand, seems to have a completely different memory of the cult than his brother does. In fact, he insists it wasn’t a cult, but was actually a commune full of people he remembers who were like family to them. His desire to return to this community is greatened when he is sent a videotape in which one member, Anna (Callie Hernandez), seems to be bidding him goodbye before the event she calls “ascension.”
Aaron convinces Justin to go back to visit, and although Justin is reluctant to go, he has some unanswered questions that he believes he is now old enough to finally have explained. The two make the journey back to this cult where, as Justin explains, everyone wears uniforms, redefines words, calls death “ascension,” worships a deity in the forest that no one else knows about and performs castrations on members.
This is where the film truly begins to get interesting, as long as you’re paying attention. Brief camera cuts during the road trip to the cult show audiences a hole that looks like it’s almost been punched through the clouds in the sky and birds that fly together in a circle. These are only the first signs of the brilliant play on loops and circles that the movie will provide in eerier doses as the movie progresses.
The members of the cult are all supposed to be in their 40s by now, but don’t appear to have aged at all since the brothers left. Self-appointed leader Hal (Tate Ellington) welcomes the brothers back and speaks in cryptic metaphors that immediately put Justin on edge.
Over the next several days of their visit, Justin becomes increasingly suspicious of the nature of the cult, while Aaron becomes reluctant to leave again, asking Justin several times if they can stay “just one more day.”
When Justin approaches Hal for answers on what the cult is, who they worship, and just what exactly this “ascension” is that they all speak so fondly of, Hal responds: “You’re at an age now where you can become a part of it. It’ll become more apparent.”
Justin also notices there isn’t just one moon in the sky, but two. Hal explains two moons “bring the truth; three signifies the ascension.”
Eventually, the brothers learn that the deity the cult worships in the forest is simply called “it,” which Hal explains is likely made of colors beyond our own spectrum, which is why no one can see it. It communicates to the members through photographs and videotapes, which explains how Aaron ended up with the videotape that no one at the camp claims to have sent him.
Utilizing a sort of Lovecraftian monster is a brilliant choice on the part of Benson and Moorhead. They manage to create this invisible being that is still frightening enough without becoming overstimulating in your typical Hollywood-monster movie reveal. The fact that this thing watches without being seen is enough to enhance all the eeriness that has surrounded the film up until this point.
This supernatural world Benson and Moorhead have built together is also incredible. The invisible deity traps its worshippers within fixed time loops (explaining why the members haven’t aged) in which they are forced to relive the same events over and over again for its own pleasure. This spans beyond cult members to include other prisoners, such as a 19th-century miner who is trapped in a tent within a loop that is only several seconds long, doomed to live out eternity in this repetitive hell.
The brothers are able to travel back and forth between these spatial time portals because they were first too young and then escaped the cult early enough before becoming trapped within one themselves — a slight detail that is brilliant in its complexity.
The film is overflowing with commanding performances, particularly from Benson and Moorhead, but also from Ellington and Hernandez and the other dead-eyed, hauntingly calm members of the cult. There is an eerie feeling of uncertainty in regards to the members — there’s something off about them but you just can’t figure out what it is. That is, until the massive conclusion to the movie where everything suddenly becomes shockingly clear.
The Blu-ray copy of The Endless includes a wide array of interesting bonus features, including a “making of” featurette in which Benson and Moorhead explain how they conceived the idea for the film.
They began with a short comedy video they attempted to make while on a festival tour with their last film, which followed two cult members who have been left behind after the rest of their cult “ascended.” From there, the filmmakers developed this concept into a feature-length film about two brothers who willingly deserted their cult, only to return years later.
A “UFO death cult” is truly only the tip of the iceberg in The Endless, a film expertly crafted around the concept of time loops and spatial distortions. It’s meta, it’s terrifying and it’s genius. ~Caitlyn Clancey
Blu-ray bonus features:
Behind the Scenes
“Ridiculous Extras” – One of the “ridiculous” extras in this featurette is the original video that inspired Moorhead and Benson to create The Endless, which they loving titled, “UFO Cult Comedy.”
If you have seen The Endless and would like to rate/review it yourself, click here.