A24 have quickly gained a reputation as the arthouse Blumhouse. It Comes at Night (2017), Hereditary (2018) and The Witch (2016) have helped establish them as the place to go for horror that certain areas of the press like to consider “elevated” or “post” horror. This small pool of features released has been observed as not horror in the conventional sense due to many of the themes and dynamics holding a much sharper focus on the relationships between the characters themselves and the friction that lies between them over the kind of overtly typical gore and jump scares, which to some have been considered a trope that is required for a film to supposedly claim itself as a horror.
In 2012, when this company was finding its feet, two independent filmmakers formed an idea which has slowly built a run of films which follow the same rules that A24 have found success with. What has formed since is a writer-director partnership which has played with genre and tropes in wildly innovative ways.
Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead premiered Resolution in the Tribeca Film Festival to a wealth of strong reviews. It’s understandable to see why. The film focuses on Micheal, a successful city dweller who decides to head out into the woods in order to rescue his former best friend; Chris who now squats in an abandoned house, wasting his days as a junkie. Mike final attempt to save his friend from his addition is challenging enough. It is made worse by the strange happenings that keep occurring around the run-down cabin. From creepy video footage and UFO cult members to glassy-eyed teenagers staring into the cabin windows. The film slowly comes to a head when Mike and Chris begin to realise that the odd goings-on are not as random as would like to think.
Rearing its head a year after Drew Goddard’s Cabin in the Woods (2011), on paper it comes across like the DIY cousin of the Joss Whedon scripted venture. Despite this, its lo-fi aesthetic and character focus sets it far apart from the larger budgeted Cabin. If a viewer were to go into Resolution expecting the indie update of Scream (1996) they would be very much mistaken. However, it is clear that like Cabin in the Woods or Scream, The Endless is looking to manipulate well-known tropes to its own whim. The Endless takes a route similar to the likes of The Duplass brothers’ feature Baghead (2008). It is a very talky horror. Resolution is less interested in Lewton Bus Scares or shadowy figures in the night, but deathly focused on the egos of it’s two main characters, and it’s down to the viewer’s belief in the duo which will more likely than not decide on if the film works for them.
Much like Cabin, Resolution also toys with the idea of audience expectation, with each film’s unseen aggressor being a less than subtle metaphor for the aggressive demands and desires of the audience. The film’s title holds a double meaning not just for its characters, but also for ourselves as audience members who bray for blood at every turn. My first watch of the film played like someone telling me an in-joke and feeling stupid for not laughing.
Unlike Cabin in the Woods, it refrains from having a nudge-nudge wink-wink tone that can make some films that dabble in post-modernism feel like they have a constant laugh track playing alongside it. A second viewing did little in becoming a more terrifying affair, still feeling like a meandering youth drama with a sting in its tale. But as a debut feature, it does well to highlight what makes the filmmakers tick, with the film’s main conceit playing out in a similar twisted way to Timecrimes (2007), with the movie creating a suffocating air of inevitability about the fate of its characters. As desperation sets in, the two characters scramble to reach a conclusion to their bizarre encounter, an issue when we consider that the audience themselves are part of the problem. To paraphrase viewers who often ignore critics: “We know what we want.”
Benson and Moorhead’s second feature, Spring (2014), can be viewed as a more conventional feature and yet it still highlights the filmmakers wish to try to make films that can be easily labeled. The lo-fi visuals of the previous film have now given way to muted, unsaturated Instagram friendly images, but their emphasis on lost 20-something males still features. Spring plays out like a blending of Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise (1995) and Vincenzo Natali’s Splice (2009).
The film’s protagonist is Evan, a wayward young man who loses his mother to cancer before losing his job soon following an altercation with a drunk. With nothing to tie him to his hometown, Evan decides to travel to Italy where he encounters an attractive woman named Louise. Despite some early reluctance, the two begin to date and see more of each other. It’s clear that something is holding Louise back in the relationship. Evan is unsure at first, but it may have something to the spite of murders occurring around the Italian villages where they’re staying.
Spring shows a filmmaking partnership growing in maturity, even though their films are primarily centred around the type of aimless 20-somethings commonly seen in the aforementioned mumblecore movement. The relationship and interplay displayed between by Lou Taylor Pucci and Nadia Hilker is the strongest in the duo’s filmography. The playful chemistry between the two is a warm as the glowing hues in the film’s cinematography, helmed by Moorhead himself. The larger budget also allows the filmmakers to give their film more detail in their design. While a lot of Resolution could easily be set up on a Dogville stage soundstage with interesting results, Spring takes advantage of its Italian location. Hovering drone shots help establish a sense of place, while picking up shots of a fly entangled in a spider’s web helps deliver a foreshadowing that the directors possibly couldn’t have obtained in their previous feature.
The effectiveness of Spring comes mostly from the writing. Benson’s script is not only well performed by the actors but comes with a solid emotional resonance that would work even without horror elements. Spring holds some of the most poignant scenes of the filmmakers’ three films. The strongest actually opens with the death of Evan’s mother and while so many of the moments between the lead couple work, it is this moment that sets up the sometimes-mundane nature of love and loss with a delicacy that’s certainly not seen in low-budget horror features.
Spring could make an appealing double feature with Andrzej Zulawski’s Possession (1981), another unique film dealing with human relationships and otherworldly beings; and yet Benson’s grounded observations of the main couple mean that these genre hybrids wouldn’t feel too out-of-place alongside Richard Linklaters Before trilogy.
The Endless is perhaps their most accomplished in terms of craft. It’s a ballsy, circular beast that thankfully skirts pretension despite the filmmakers casting themselves in the lead roles. The duo’s performances may bring across an awkward tension in the front of the screen; this is fitting as The Endless is more about their complicated narrative complexities than their thespian prospects.
Arron and Justin play brothers Arron and Justin respectively as runaways of a UFO death cult. After receiving a videotape of the cult who are still around and surprisingly happy, Arron suggests they go back to visit as he’s frustrated with his mundane cycle of life. Justin reluctantly accepts and the brothers head back to their old stomping ground and are subjected to bad karaoke, creepy magic tricks and the creeping possibility that their fate is somewhat sealed with the actions of the cult.
The narrative is actually even more complex than that. Distracting its viewers with a will they won’t they relationship between Arron and Anna (Callie Hernandez) and a bubbling tension between the overtly negative Justin and the remaining cult members. Much like Resolution, it teases more conventional tropes such as the creepy, ever smiling Dave (David Clarke Lawson jr) whose unmoving grin is only as unsettling as his inability to speak. However, Benson and Moorhead are more interested in twisting their story inside out with the film performing a narrative more so far out from left field that anyone who says they expected it is lying harder than a political spin doctor.
To saying else would be a huge spoiler, but it’s safe to say that the film itself becomes a larger expansion of a universe they’ve been slowly creating from under our noses. The revelations that unfold would and perhaps should crumble under the hands of filmmakers who would traipse into such a movie head on, and yet The Endless keeps a deft balance on its intricate plot making sure that the narrative loops remain as on track as the grounded performances. I was not as enraptured with Benson and Moorhead’s lead performances as a few other writers, chiefly due to one aspect of the films meta twists is abrupt enough to take more canny viewers out of the film, and yet their disaffected nature set against the extraordinary events are what makes The Endless standout.
In fact, it’s this element that makes all the of duo’s films so appealing. Much like Primer (2004), Sound of My Voice (2011) or Coherence (2013), the oddities that occur within Benson/Moorhead features are more disquieting because everyone in the middle of the events just feels so normal. For whatever flaws that bestow these films, the quiet command of the frame and near endless ambition makes them enthralling. The twisted nature of the narratives produced are never protracted and are consistently provocative, yet the down to earth nature of these characters who have stumbled into their own horror film keeps us invested. We’re intrigued because they’re intrigued. No one we watch ever feels like a stock character and none of their actions feel laboured because they are believable.
The most noteworthy aspect is whomever we’re watching, the relationships remain true to who these people are. It is this factor that has been the driving force for most of the aforementioned titles, particularly with Benson and Moorhead. The ease at which you could pull out the stranger strands of these stories and still retain a comfortable fitting story is what makes them tick. Resolution could still be a tale about addition. Spring could still be a touching romance. The Endless could easily remain a film about two brothers looking for their place within an ill-fitted world.
However, it is these otherworldly happenings, the twists in the tale, which allow these micro-budgeted movies to become the products of one of the most inventive partnerships currently working. The films may be niche. They may not hold the type of scares that occur in a James Wan feature. But they are perfect for a viewer who wishes to wander off the beaten track.
The Endless is out on DVD and Blu-ray via Arrow Video today, 2nd July 2018.