When movies and TV shows focus on stories about cults, there is a sense of finality to the story. Most cult stories echo the same sort of stories about the final days of a cult with police raiding a compound, or a member making an escape. So when The Endless flips the narrative of what a cult story can be, mixing a drama about uneasy relationships with the ever-present concerns of a mysterious force laying beyond the camp grounds perimeter, it shocks the viewer to attention.
The Endless opens beyond the end of what we're used to seeing in movies. Our lead characters here have already escaped the cult. That part of the story is done. The interesting conceit here is that they are drawn to go back and visit. It's not quite PTSD or some sort of Stockholm Syndrome - instead, the film makes for a pretty compelling case on why these characters should maybe consider making a better life for themselves within a cult-like community.
As the film opens, we are introduced to brothers Justin and Aaron, who are living in LA and working as cleaners. In the years that followed their decision to leave Camp Arcadia, a collective they belonged to, they have struggled to live beyond the poverty line and redefine their lives in a meaningful way. When Aaron receives a videotape from Camp Arcadia, he convinces Justin that they should go back for a visit.
In their past, Camp Arcadia offered each brother a different experience. For Justin, the older of the two, he describes it as a 'UFO death cult'. Justin is openly surprised that the residents of Camp Arcadia haven't committed suicide. For Aaron, the experience was broadly positive - when he was at Camp Arcadia he was surrounded by a community of friends, had a life filled with joys like fishing, and was able to eat fresh food. The brothers distinct experiences serve to create a division between the two as they consider a life with the cult, versus what a life represents without the security the cult provides them.
When Aaron and Justin get to the camp, we see that it is a community of people in their twenties and early thirties, though Justin insists that most are in their forties - they just look young because of their diet. Their main source of income is in brewing beer and they spend their nights partying, singing karaoke, and living an idealised disconnected hipster dream.
But then things start to get weird. The physics in the area get screwy. And the viewer is plunged into a story that has echoes less of Martha Marcy May Marlene and leans more toward Donnie Darko.
The Endless revels in rejecting the specificity of its initial plot. This is a movie about brothers revisiting a cult until it isn't really about that anymore. Once the emotional narrative has been set for the film, it gives writer/directors Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead the opportunity to explore the world they have created. Both in terms of the relationship between the films main characters, but also more literally in its exploration of the geography of the camp grounds - revealing how the mysterious forces impacting on the cult has affected nearby residents.
Here the film covertly acts as a quasi-sequel to Benson and Moorhead's first feature film Resolution, which was about a graphic designer who tries to help his junkee friend go cold turkey off drugs in a remote cabin. These same characters appear in The Endless in a story that kind of runs parallel to the events of Resolution.
Moorhead and Benson star as the two brothers in the film - an interesting choice in that they didn't star in their previous two films. For two relatively inexperienced actors working on a film in which they're also responsible for writing, directing, cinematography, and editing the movie, the two prove to be highly engaging leads.
The Endless was little-seen upon its theatrical release, but has subsequently built a fan following as audiences discover the movie. This is a low-fi, buttoned-down, and intensely creepy film that will linger on your mind for months to come.
Watch 'The Endless'
Thursday 18 June, 10:20pm on SBS World Movies (streaming after broadcast at SBS On Demand)
Genre: Science Fiction
Director: Aaron Moorhead, Justin Benson
Starring: Aaron Moorhead, Justin Benson, Callie Hernandez, Tate Ellington
What's it about?
Living in poverty in a shared studio apartment in Los Angeles, two brothers (Justin and Aaron) receive a mysterious videotape in a box that seems to have been shipped through a hundred countries before arriving on their doorstep. On it, a Heaven’s Gate-like cult member talks about an impending 'Ascension'. We learn that the brothers were raised in this cult, and fled from it a decade ago because Justin pulled Aaron out when he became aware of an impending mass suicide.