Thursday, 21/9/2017 | 12:17 UTC+0

The Endless review: a creepy indie horror film that ups the stakes for its creators

Welcome to Cheat Sheet, our brief breakdown-style reviews of festival films, VR previews, and other special-event releases. We’re currently reporting from the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City.

Back in 2012, the Tribeca Film Festival hosted the world premiere of a tiny indie horror film called Resolution, directed by Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead and written by Benson. The film’s desaturated, grubby poster made it look exactly like the torture-porn movies that were already out of vogue at that point, but the film itself is something different — an intimate character drama about two friends stuck in a backwoods cabin, where something unearthly is stalking them, and gradually making itself known. Resolution’s ending is a jarring surprise after the slow build that leads up to it, but the shock comes with a kind of delight at how Benson and Moorhead use Resolution to toy with horror-movie tropes and joke about horror-movie audiences.

Benson and Moorhead moved away from the world of Resolution with their second film together, Spring, about a young man who unwittingly gets sexually and emotionally involved with a monster. But they’re back to their original world with their latest project, The Endless, which gives Resolution a little more resolution. It isn’t exactly a sequel, but it draws on Resolution’s ideas clearly enough that The Endless will play much better for people who’ve already seen their first film, and have their expectations set for Lovecraftian horror, technological mind-games, and some meta ideas about what makes for a satisfying story.

What’s the genre?

Mindbending low-budget horror-thriller.

What’s it about?

Justin (Benson) and Aaron (Moorhead) star as brothers who work as low-rent house-cleaners. After their mother died in a car crash, they were rescued and raised by a nearby commune of mild-mannered, vaguely dazed-looking people who make a living by brewing and selling beer and performing other odd jobs for the nearby community. But Justin eventually rebelled and pulled Aaron out, and their heavily publicized “escape from the UFO death cult” has colored both of their lives. They find it hard to make friends or go on dates, and they’re living without personal connections or a plan for the future. Aaron remembers the commune fondly, as a group of friendly people who ate healthy food, lived a wholesome lifestyle, and genuinely cared about each other. When a battered videotape shows up in the mail, with a cult member talking about the approaching ascension, it seals Aaron’s determination to return to the group’s Camp Arcadia for a day or two. Justin is reluctant and angry, but Aaron insists they need emotional closure, and to say goodbye to the people who raised them.

But once they’ve returned to Camp Arcadia, creepy things keep happening. Everyone’s smile seems a little too fake. Nominal camp leader Hal (Tate Ellington) and a mute commune member named Dave (David Lawson Jr.) never seem to stop smiling. Anna (Callie Hernandez), who appeared on the ascension videotape, makes her sexual interest in Aaron clear, even though she was one of the adults raising him. Objects blink in and out of reality. Weird markers, something like tall, narrow termite mounds, mark circles around various territories in the woods. And eventually, a series of signs mark the coming ascension, and a decision that Justin and Aaron need to make.

What’s it really about?

Where Resolution was more obviously a meta-story about the act of storytelling (especially horror storytelling, and horror-movie storytelling), The Endless instead focuses on repetition, the way people get into ruts, and the stories they tell themselves to justify those ruts.

Tribeca Film Festival

Is it good?

The Endless has its notable faults, and the editing is one of the bigger ones. In the early going especially, the script feels rushed, as if Benson’s in a hurry to get past establishing the character and push on toward the commune. The editing around those early scenes feels herky-jerky and confused, with the physical action moving forward at a different pace from the conversation. On the other end of the film, there’s some repetition, with the biggest reveal coming multiple times — which is thematically appropriate, as it turns out, but still frustrating.

Those hiccups aside, though, The Endless rapidly develops from a mysterious, elliptical story about cult survivors and strained relationships into a much larger and stranger movie, essentially the Aliens to Resolution’s original Alien. Benson comes up with some authentically eerie, uncomfortable ideas that play well on screen. Chief among them: “The Struggle,” a Camp Arcadia ritual where commune members use a giant rope to play tug-of-war with an unseen presence out in the pitch darkness outside the camp. It’s presented as a cheery team-building exercise, and it’s clearly symbolic to them, but there’s endless discomfort in the scenes where people act as if it’s perfectly normal to pull on a rope that disappears into inky blackness, with a sense of a monumental unseen presence on the other end.

And Moorhead and Benson make smart use of micro-budget digital special effects to create phenomena just real enough to be unearthly. As oddities pile up around the commune, the effects slowly build in intensity. Some are as simple as a second moon suddenly appearing in the sky. Others are more unsettling. And they ramp up in intensity in an intelligent way, as the film goes from zero-budget horror (“I just saw something terrible offscreen” tactics, essentially) to a much more sophisticated level of world-rebuilding. Viewers who haven’t seen Resolution may be lost at some of the plot twists. But fans of Moorhead and Benson’s fans aren’t going to want to miss the way the use the earlier film to create and subvert expectations here, and to expand their mythology in a way that’s increasingly reminiscent of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks.

What should it be rated?

PG-13. It’s mental horror, not physical horror, though there’s some blood, some fairly intense shocks, and a whole lot of existential angst.

How can I actually watch it?

The Endless is currently seeking distribution, but given that Resolution spent some time on Netflix’s streaming service and then wound up on the usual roster of online-rental and video-on-demand services, there’s every reason to believe The Endless will join it online eventually.