A Cinematic Universe Built Around Time Travel, Lovecraftian Horror, and a U.F.O. Death Cult
Their budgets would barely even cover the catering costs of your average Marvel adventure, but filmmakers Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead are well on their way toward creating their own cinematic universe. The new film The Endless, out in limited release April 6, is a complex, metaphysical journey through cults, aliens, time travel, and Lovecraftian horror . . . and that’s before it hooks up with the characters from their previous film, 2012’s Resolution.
“That was very, very strange for us,” Moorhead says about bringing back the actors, Peter Cilella and Vinny Curran, from their third feature. “We just got to sit back and watch them try their best to remember how they did it.”
In The Endless, two brothers venture back to the U.F.O. death cult they used to call home and end up stuck in a maze of time loops they must escape in order to return to the outside world. In one hilariously strange scene they stumble upon the two friends from Resolution, who are re-enacting their first meeting on the steps of a cabin.
Clearly, Benson and Moorhead have a taste for meta-fiction. Films-within-films abound in The Endless as characters play roles that have been rehearsed and perfected over time, resigned to recreating forever the same ten days, or two hours, or, in one horrifying sequence, three seconds.
The two met in 2009 as interns at Ridley Scott’s commercial-production studio, RSA Films. It was Moorhead’s first day and Benson’s last, but they still discovered that they were into the same stuff, like Stephen King books and speculative fiction. Since then, they’ve made three feature films and two shorts together, and made the decision not only to write and direct, but also to star in their newest film (as two characters named, fittingly, Justin and Aaron).
“We just wanted to make a completely self-reliant movie,” Moorhead explains. “We’ll direct it, I’ll shoot it, we’ll edit it. We just thought the same thing would apply to acting. We’ll be in it.”
They shot The Endless on location at the very same Christian children’s camp where they bunked while making Resolution—sleeping on tiny beds, making campfires at night with the rest of the crew. “At the risk of sounding trite,” Benson says, “because we were all together in this pressure-cooker situation of an indie film, it became a very benevolent version of the cult.’”
The pair’s fascination with old forms of physical media shows up again and again in their movies. The brothers in The Endless are called back to their former cult-commune home by a videotape mailed to their house; the friends in Resolution are terrorized by VHS videos of themselves that could only have been recorded by some invisible presence standing in the room with them.
“The closest you can get to real life is probably film, so you kind of enter into the uncanny valley when you start putting it on old media,” Moorhead explains. “It’s like a copy of a copy of a copy of a moment. And so, in some ways, they’re ghosts.”
So there’s irony that the filmmakers must rely on digital inventions like on-demand to attract an audience—but an irony they’re happy to embrace.
“Our movies are always meant to be these really small releases that are discovered like that,” Benson says. “We kind of came along right after the world stopped making medium-sized movies.” Which isn’t to say they wouldn’t want to make a larger-budget project in the future, Benson adds, laughing. “We’re totally out of cheap, spooky ideas.”
Luckily for them, cults also happen to be having a moment, thanks to projects like Waco and Netflix’s Wild Wild Country. “I think it probably has something to do with politics. It’s hard to say exactly what the connection is, I don’t know,” says Moorhead, before going on: “I’m kidding. We all know.”