"The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown," reads the H.P. Lovecraft quote that opens Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson's The Endless, playing at Popcorn Frights Film Festival this weekend. Their former works, Resolution and Spring, have both been described as Lovecraftian by critics everywhere, but prior to this feature, the directors had never read his work.
"People would call Resolution 'Lovecraftian' and we'd look at each other and say, 'Who's Lovecraft?'" Moorhead admits while discussing his film with New Times over the phone. "We've fixed that now, but he's not an influence on us directly except to say that he was an influence on our influences. We all live in a post-Lovecraft world now that he's existed and his tendrils have gone far and wide in the psyche of everybody who makes anything horrific."
The quote speaks beautifully in pairing with the themes of The Endless: a film about two brothers (played by the directors themselves) who return to the cult they fled years ago to discover that the group's beliefs may be more sane than they once thought. The film explores the notion of finding comfort in conformity, and control and rebellion are themes they seek to explore in their work.
"These themes are most conspicuous in The Endless where you have a group of people who have chosen to live a comfortable life eternally rather than live a life full of unknowns in a finite manner," Benson explains. "There's a similar situation in Spring on a micro level too. I think we aim to have themes that oftentimes someone says 'This is risky,' but ultimately we have broad themes that anyone can connect to. Literally anyone who's lived a life can relate to the idea of thinking, Man, if I took more risks, I suspect my life would be better."
"In The Endless, things are deliberately tied together where you can very easily relate this idea of fear of the unknown, meaning the great antagonist of the movie, or you can relate it to the unknown being the fact that one brother is afraid to rebel against the other because he doesn't know what life will be like after that," Moorhead adds. "Tying your sci-fi idea with your character idea thematically turns those two ideas into one."
Many horror films nowadays focus on shocks and adhere to tropes that grow tiresome, but these two directors are consistent in creating works that feel different. They're a great balance of heartfelt, humorous, and genuinely unsettling, and their influences, which the pair claims don't include a nostalgia for horror films, are a good indication of why.
"My beginning was mostly reading books," Moorhead says. "I liked books that tickled your mind and scared you at the same time, more like speculative fiction, sci-fi/horror, and the best of Stephen King. That was definitely formative. It wasn't a steady diet of slashers or anything like that, and that's why I think what we do is a little strange because I was always more attracted to the drama in books."
"Movies that just have violence and jump scares don't scare me. When I'm writing, I challenge myself to come up with something that is actually scary. And I don't personally believe that just because you put jump scares and violence means something is scary," Benson continues. "I think those are conventions of the genre that can be done impressively, but the neatest thing about horror films is how you can give someone the thrill, the roller coaster ride, of being scared."
The two have accomplished those frights with limited supplies. As an expansion of sorts of their first feature, Resolution, the directors had plenty to work with for The Endless already in place. "What's nice about staying in a low budget is you already know what you have at your disposal," Moorhead explains. "We had a children's camp and a cabin from Resolution and know the area well. We know I am good at a very particular type of visual effect and midlevel compositing. Justin's good at swimming and I'm good at tying knots. We make a list of all the resources we have at our disposal that are free and then think: What is the weirdest, coolest, most mind-bending way to do that?"
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Benson agrees and adds, "People often say limitations make projects better and I think that's 1,000 percent true. When we were developing the story for The Endless, we'd worked with enough production designers to think: What's an interesting visual that goes well with this story? And our designer can pull that off with pennies. It's weird, when you watch Avengers: Age of Ultron and the Incredible Hulk slides down a 40-foot building, lands, runs off, and jumps a hundred feet into a somersault in one shot, for some reason it doesn't have the same impact."
And while the duo will continue to make their unique films — they have three features and four TV shows at different levels of completion, budget, and scale — Moorhead jokes that they have other plans for the future: "So Justin is a really strong swimmer and he's also really good at Cirque du Soleil. He's just going to chase his dream doing that. And The Endless, as you know, has made me a multibillionaire, like indie films tend to do. So I'm moving to Vegas and watching all of his shows."