The Endless is a complex and ambitious indie sci-fi that makes a strength of its evidently low budget.
Written by, directed, and starring Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead, the film opens with two brothers struggling to make ends meet in contemporary L.A. A decade before, the older brother, Justin, took the younger, Aaron, away from Camp Arcadia, the commune where they had grown up together; insisting it was, in fact, a UFO death cult (“I rescued you from a mass suicide. You’re welcome.”) Now, broke, single, and unemployable, they find themselves compelled to make a return visit – if only for the sake of a decent meal.
Out amid the wilds of Southern California, there is the sense of both space and confinement – long stretches of road, dust and gorse, and sporadic outcrops of dense woodland, oddly compact against the scope and scale. The camera tilts up to reveal a hillside so vast, it could well be the curvature of the Earth. Such moments of scale and spectacle serve to reinforce the subtle feeling of claustrophobia.
Camp Arcadia itself a small, self-sufficient community of seemingly like-minded individuals – all healthy and happy, but not unnaturally so. They seem stable, normal. Even their otherwise cult-y traditions, like their talk of Ascension, or a tug-of-war with a force in the darkness, seems fairly benign under the circumstances. Then again, there is Smiling Dave, who Justin and Aaron pass at the gate, silent and no stationary you could mistake him for a cardboard cutout.
There’s nothing overtly wrong and yet a sense of the uncanny pervades Camp Arcadia. There are misshapen concrete markers and strange natural phenomena; a second moon appearing in the sky, for instance. And then there are the questions you might not think to ask – like, how come no one is any older than the two of them?
If The Endless had been made in the UK, we might consider it folk horror, though the film is more akin to a Annihilation – minus the scientific rationale – than it is Wicker Man. There is an underlying theme of being trapped, in a place, in cycles of behaviour, and whether it’s better to have free will and live in a state of unhappiness, but with the possibility of change, or to live a long, happy life in which so ultimate tragedy is preordained. Sometimes you can go “home” again, but should you?
Benson and Moorhead make strategic use of aerial shots to reinforce the idea of people swallowed up by forces unimaginably greater than themselves: a tiny boat in the middle of a lake; the water of which shows as beige around the edges, but beneath them is a dark, moody, threatening green; or figures moving around a campfire, enveloped in the darkness.
The Endless is, essentially, cosmic horror – Lovecraftian forces intruding from beyond our universe. In a blockbuster, like GOTG, Vol. 2, we’d get to see the full monstrousness of such a being – innumerable tentacles, the slathering maw – but CGI can never hope to convey the mind-altering terror that such a being promises. The Endless, however, gives us a charcoal drawing of white fangs hanging in the darkness above the valley, and, again, that voyeuristic God’s-eye view.
Moorhead’s crisp yet washed-out cinematography, and the film’s use of handheld, conveys an almost documentary feel, which makes this all the more unsettling. The use of outdated technology, like flip phones and VCRs – as long as they still work, no one has money to replace them – aided by Jimmy Lavalle’s thrumming ambient score, which approaches the discordant dreaminess of Vangelis’ Blade Runner, lends an appropriately ironic timelessness.
The Endless is a film about which I could write near enough endlessly, but if there’s one thing Benson and Moorhead seem to be saying it’s about knowing when to move on. All I’ll say then is what more can you ask for from 110 minutes? This is one I’m eager to return to…
The Endless is released by Arrow Films in Cinemas and is also now available on Digital HD, DVD, & Blu-ray via Arrow Video.