A new film, “The Endless”, is kind of intriguing, if not particularly original. But the almost universally enthusiastic reviews are a mystery. I guess being old enough to remember countless other cheap indies from the past hampered my enjoyment.
Writer Justin Benson stars with Aaron Moorhead as brothers who had been raised since childhood in a commune, Camp Arcadia, in the southwest. Benson and Moorhead also co-directed the film, which Moorhead photographed himself. The characters they play have their same first names.
When the film opens, Justin and his younger brother are living together in the city, with Aaron particularly unhappy. Some ten years earlier, when in his late teens, Justin convinced Aaron to run away from the group with him. He remembers it as a kind of “UFO cult” whose members are awaiting an earth-transforming event called “the Ascension”. Now, some ten years later, they receive a video from Anna, a young woman who had given the orphaned Aaron maternal warmth. Feeling spiritually deprived, Aaron longs to return to the group. He asks Justin to go back with him, if only for a brief visit. Reluctantly, Justin agrees.
What follows is a curious mixture of quasi-religious adventure and comic creepiness. It sustains interest because the setting and the members of the group suggest an isolated community able to tap into an alternate reality, controlled by an unseen force. Is it God? An alien race? The members of the group deny they are a “cult”, but Justin, who immediately regrets the return visit, is certain they are dangerous. He reminds Aaron that its religious practices include castration and mass suicide, although he can’t quite say how he knows that.
Sometimes, a film comes along that is best classified as a “shaggy dog” story in movie form. In “The Endless”, we get a variation that I choose to call a “shaggy cult” story. The story takes a lot of turns that lead to other turns leading to…what? For instance, Justin asks Hal, the group leader, about what the group believes in. He is told that he will find the answer in an object lying at the bottom of the lake. He finds an object all right, but the only thing it tells him, in its inscrutable way, is that he’s a jerk for asking the question. In a similar vein, Aaron is mystified when he sees two moons in the night sky. He asks Anna how that can be. Smilingly, she assures him that it’s only important when the third moon appears. Spoiler alert: it does, and it isn’t.
The goofiest scene involves Justin and a scary crank called “Shitty Carl” who lives just outside the commune. Standing next to a dead man hanging from a noose, the crank gives Justin a map to locate another crank, who will give him a gun. It’s supposed to be important that Justin do this so that he can also escape the commune, but don’t ask me to explain how. The point is, this kind of nonsense is often mildly entertaining, as it is here, because the actors play it totally straight.
But maybe too straight. While it may be unfair to compare this effort to David Lynch’s “Eraserhead” – an undisputed masterpiece – you realize how much the humor in Lynch’s film depended on seeing such odd characters who have no idea how odd they really are; their total self-absorption makes you laugh. But here, much of the acting seems a little distracted, and not comically sharp enough. They seem more like a bunch of Brooklyn neighbors on a camping trip, and not like people who are awaiting some sort of apocalypse. Also, while it’s too straight to be funny, the action is just too silly to generate the kind of tingle you can get from a genuinely disturbing occult movie, like Michael Tolkin’s “The Rapture”.
It’s not campy like “The Rocky Horror Picture Show”, and it has no dazzling visual effects, like “Legion”, the Noah Hawley cable series, or the recently restored “Liquid Sky”, a psychedelic classic from the ’80s.
The two male leads are OK, if not exactly charismatic. But Callie Hernandez, as Anna, is so cheery she might have wandered in from the “Pitch Perfect” set. I can only single out Tate Ellington, as Hal, the group leader, and James Jordan, as the crank, for supplying the requisite creepiness.
Still, I almost want to recommend the film to find out why so many critics went nuts over it.