The Endless, another film of Lovecraftian flavour by Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead after their 2014 Spring, opens with two quotes: one, by Lovecraft, about the supremely powerful fear of the unknown; the other, by an unknown author, jesting about how siblings can wait until their deathbed to make a confession, encapsulating the narrative and the relationship between the protagonists, brothers Justin (Benson) and Aaron Smith (Moorhead), respectively. When Aaron was a child, Justin escaped with him from a commune which he believed to be a UFO death cult. Ten years later, forced to live in poverty and rendered unable to connect with others by a past of which he actually remembers very little, Aaron decides to visit the commune after receiving a video from one of its members, Anna (Callie Hernandez). Justin accepts to go back for one day, and the two are surprisingly well-received by the cultists. Their stay is however punctuated with supernatural incidents in a crescendo of eeriness.
The flat light and greyish colours of the dingy apartment the brothers share seem to blend into each other and efficaciously accentuate the squalor of what Aaron regards as a hopelessly unsatisfactory, repetitive life. The quick-paced editing of the incipit is set against fragments of one same discussion (whether to return to the cult), contributing to the impression that the passing of time brings no change to Justin and Aaron, only monotony. The mise-en-scène acquires more substance as soon as they return to the commune, mirroring Aaron’s contentment which not even his older brother’s wariness can spoil. Jimmy Lavalle’s music is not exceedingly original, but its skilful employment is instrumental in creating a suspenseful, uncanny atmosphere, which precedes and frames the arrival at the commune. It also concentrates our attention on the motif of circles so that the we learn to associate them with the mysterious and the disquieting, and later recognize them as foreshadowing of the power of a malevolent, never identified entity: unknown, and therefore, according to a Lovecraftian model, incomparably frightening, although in The Endless the final effect is one of suspense rather than dread.
The film plays with time without ever offering explanations or solutions, just like the predatory overlord who manipulates the characters’ perceptions. Their befuddlement is enhanced by the clever use of the camera, which weaves impossible shots and half-reveals, half-conceals information. Counterpoint to Justin’s quest to discover the secrets of the cult is Aaron’s more serene immersion in its practices, which confirms that Justin’s concern for his younger brother, albeit genuine, is tainted by a need for control, expressed very early into the story, that has led him to lie to manipulate Aaron. Aaron is aware of the controlling aspect of his brother’s personality and frequently engages in mild opposition against it. The imbalance of their relationship is openly addressed in the climax of the film, which, much like the rest of the third act, feels a bit rushed. In the end, the convergence of the supernatural and the growth of the two protagonists may be perceived as slightly underwhelming because of its circumstances.
Nonetheless, The Endless, particularly in the first act, shows that when the script, acting, and cinematography are solid, a big special effects budget is not necessary to intrigue the audience. The restrained treatment that the unexplainable occurrences receive facilitates the spectators’ immersion in the story while also letting the two brothers’ psychology and relationship take centre stage. If on the one hand their dynamic loses some steam when side characters acquire more prominence, on the other Benson’s and Moorhead’s strong performances allow the characters to bear the weight of that much attention. The supporting cast, among whom Tate Ellington is especially worthy of note, is also believable, although many of their characters feel ultimately flat or even unnecessary, moving and talking props who are relegated to self-contained, exposition-oriented episodes: once they leave the frame, they are not seen or mentioned again, nor are they missed. Perhaps it is the focus of the two protagonists on each other (and on themselves) that prevents the other characters from truly standing out.
Aaron and Justin (characters and actors alike) do however live up to the responsibility they carry, aided by a deftly woven script and effective camerawork whose synergy with Lavalle’s neck-prickling music prove once again that a filmmaker worth his salt can chill their audience without jump scares, gore, or relentless screaming.