Thursday 19 September 2019

Cult Cinema #16: The Endless (2017)

I'm not the only writer that's made this observation, but I've found in the last couple years since I've been doing this that certain films are easier to write about than others. And this doesn't map exactly on to how good they are. Great films are easy to write about. Really terrible films are easier to write about still, too easy in fact, because any idiot can lay into a film and give a brutal run down of what's wrong with it. A deep dive into what's good or even great about a bad film isn't all that tough, and a bit more rewarding (and I have a soft spot for those films that are in no way good but nonetheless wildly entertaining). Films that are a wild mix of brilliant and awful are a gift. But films that are just sort of average are tough work; it feels you like have to fight to tease anything out of them.

The hardest of all are the ones that are pretty good. Not the best ever, just good. Solid, well made, well performed, well structured films with a clear idea of what they're doing and what they're saying, and how to say it. Because what else is there to say? To understand the film, you just have to watch it.

Which is a bit of a long-winded preamble to me putting The Endless in just that category. It's a good film. I recommend you seeing it. I enjoyed it and that's just as well because I've watched it four times now with the intention of writing about it and I'm still not sure what to say (especially when my last go at a piece, after the third view, got accidentally deleted about a thousand words in and I ragequit and abandoned it for a month). Spoilers abound, both for this and Resolution (2012), the film to which this is a loose sequel, but not as many as usual. People who are upset or strongly affected by talk of suicide might prefer not to read this piece, although mention of such is only brief.

Justin and Aaron (directors Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead) are brothers. As kids, they were orphaned in a car trash, and found by the kindly folk of Camp Arcadia, a remote commune, where they were looked after for some years, until about ten years ago Justin, then a young adult, decided that it would be best if he and his teen brother escaped. Entering the outside world, Justin spun a tale to anyone who would listen that the people of Camp Arcadia were a UFO-worshipping death cult, that all the men were castrated on reaching adulthood, Heaven's Gate-style, and that a mass suicide, also Heaven's Gate-style, was planned. This being the USA, they returned to lives of poverty, with no family or community to support them beyond each other. They live in poverty, just about surviving as house cleaners, living on those super cheap instant ramen noodles that have nearly zero nutritional value, and without any meaningful contact other than with the cult deprogramming counsellor. They have old phones. One day Aaron picks up a parcel that appears to have travelled around the world a couple of times. It contains a portable VHS cassette, covered in dust. Aaron spends the money that he was supposed to spend on a car battery (and this is Chekhov's Car Battery, because of course it is, an early indicator of the film's structural solidity) on a HandiCam he finds in a yard sale, much to Justin's dismay. The tape is a filmed message from Camp Arcadia resident Anna (Callie Hernandez), talking about how they're preparing for "ascension".

Aaron wants to go back. Justin remembers the place with a sort of abhorrence. But Aaron remembers camp fire cookouts, and real food, and community, and singalongs, and countryside. He remembers people who cared for him. And they go back and visit. And along the way they find out that both Aaron and Justin have it right to an extent (although not everything right, because Justin exaggerated the culty parts so that people on the outside would pay attention), and the film clearly and accurately represents how the same experiences can be remembered in wildly different ways by any two people, even two people who are very close.
So they go back, and everyone seems pleased to see them, and no one looks any older, and leader Hal (Tate Ellington) seems to welcome them, and yeah, there's resentment for what Justin did, quite a bit, but it takes a while for that to tease out, and in the meantime they become aware that there's a vast, faintly Lovecraftian intelligence present in the area that communicates with the people via audio-visual technology and which sees fit to trap people here in loops of time, forever, and the film pretty clearly lays out the rules of that, and makes it pretty clear that you'll never know the reasons, so each loop ends with you dying, and you're sort of aware of previous loops having happened and the moment you return from dying and enter another loop, that's it, you're stuck here forever. The thing is in the lake; it watches the land; it distorts the sky. As Aaron and Justin explore the area they run into a number of people who are affected Chris and Mike (Vinny Curran and Peter Cilella), who were the protagonists of Resolution (2012), Moorhead and Benson's first film.

(All three of Moorhead and Benson’s films are essentially horror films about love: Spring (2014), which is the least successful of their films, is about romance, and The Endless is about the fraternal bond, and Resolution is about platonic friendship.)

In Resolution, Mike comes to stay with his old friend Chris, who is an addict, and whose addictions have, as addictions tend to in the real world, systematically cut him off from the regard of anyone who would care. Mike is his last friend and his last hope. He puts Chris through cold turkey. As the two of them realise that they might be stuck here together forever, they work out their friendship.

Justin and Aaron, still members of the cult, but oddly different, have a brief scene in Resolution which is eventually called back in its wrongness in The Endless, and which serves to advance the plot in a pretty satisfying way. Resolution ends with Chris and Mike's deaths and their reboot. In The Endless, Justin meets Mike's wife Jennifer (Emily Montague), who's searching for her missing husband, and then meets the two men, and Justin crucially is too kind to tell Mike that no, she hasn't moved on and his disappearance is a constant torment to her. Sometimes a lie or an omission is a kindness.

The different time loops are of different lengths. Chris and Mike have maybe a few days. A man in a tent in Edwardian dress replays his death every few seconds and apparently has done for over a hundred years; local jerk Shitty Carl (James Jordan) seems to reboot every few hours. With Camp Arcadia it's about a decade. Hal knows this, and indeed, Justin finds evidence that maybe Hal and some of the others have been here since at least 1942.
Hal and company aren't particularly malevolent. They don't try to stop anyone leaving and while some of their customs are pretty strange and unsettling, they're also sort of kooky, rather than outright sinister – the case in point being a tug of war against an unseen force that holds the rope in the darkness. The cult ascribe a meaning to it, but why the unknowable cosmic force at the other end might want to do this remains a mystery, just as much as why it might make reels of film and videocassettes with recordings of what it's seen spontaneously appear. And it's not necessary to know, any more than it's necessary to have a rationale for the wind to blow. Uncanny things happen and different people have different ideas of how to cope with them. Chris and Mike have a firm resolution that they're going to stand up and fight, even if it means depriving the creature of its prey – "Because fuck you," says Chris to the sky as he immolates himself and his pal, rather than let the Thing take them, because having agency over your death is a powerful thing.

Anna embarks on a relationship with Aaron and while that complicates things and while Justin totally believes that this is a ploy to keep them, there doesn't seem to be anything behind it.

Often that's the thing with any messed up religion, just as it is with any bad relationship. If it were all bad, no one would join to begin with, and if the bad were not able to be explained away or excused as a good, or if it could not be compared with the good and at least for a while found wanting, no one would stay. Bad religion has to have good bits to succeed.

Which is why Aaron wavers on the subject of leaving, even when he knows the truth. It is only when his brother honestly expresses his love, regard and respect that Aaron decides that maybe living with agency is better.

Do they escape? Aaron's decision to bring them here is tied up with the fact that he didn't get a car battery l. Of course it fails, because they went a few days without having started the car, and the attempt to escape depends on Justin accepting and trusting that Aaron knows what he's doing. At the start of The Endless, we see a standard quote from HP Lovecraft about something unknowable and cosmic (seriously you could stick a pin blind on a random page of a Lovecraft collection and get some bollocks about the Vasty Cosmical Darknesses), and it shares the screen with an anonymous quote about how siblings leave the most important things far too long. The film invites us to compare the bonds of familial affection and the post-Lovecraft cosmic horror take on the universe as blankly uncaring, vast and incomprehensible. It's a funny/sad juxtaposition, the way that of all the most unknowable things, how families communicate is right up there among the unknowablest.
Bad religions supplant familial relationships. They do it all the time. I remember how when the evangelicals had me, the rhetoric was very much designed, although not consciously, to encourage me to abandon my family. And the fact that some families are really better off abandoned anyway only strengthens their claim. They claim to be a better, truer family. Sometimes they are actually better (see Manson Family Vacation, for instance, for a character who sees a bad, bad religion as a family substitute). But sometimes they're not.

Aaron and Justin have each other and while their life isn't a good one, it's a life and it's a valid decision. But then, eternal youth with people who really do like you for the price of one moment of inescapable horror every ten years doesn't actually sound so bad either, and Aaron's difficulty in making his decision isn't too outside the realms of understanding. I mean, I get it; I don’t think I can quite express how much I regret the fact that in a choice between that and spending that time close by my blood family, I’d take the cult. And with Aaron and Justin, there’s the added thing that society at large is failing them too. There is no community in their lives, and, being in the USA, which is brutally uncaring of its poorest members, there’s even less of a social safety net than there is here.

Is the decision moot? On their way to Camp Arcadia, Aaron and Justin stop at a roadside shrine to their mother, who died here. Aaron remarks that it looks pretty new, but no, it isn't, it's been here more than a decade. Justin and Aaron's struggle with the Unknowable Being that confines them looks like it's victorious: they crash through a wall of force into daylight. But on the other side of the wall is their mother's ageless shrine. It is under the influence of the Thing. Have they in fact escaped? The film leaves it open. But then the story of the film is not concerned with their escape, only their shared identity, as brothers.