Thursday, July 26, 2018

THE ENDLESS (2017) (Umbrella DVD Review)


Label: Umbrella Entertainment
Region Code: Region-FREE 
Rating: M
Duration: 111 Minutes
Audio: English Dolby Digital Surround 5.1 
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen (2.35:1)
Cast: Aaron Moorhead, Justin Benson
Director: Callie Hernandez, Emily Montague, James Jordan, Aaron Moorhead, Justin Benson

Lovecraftian cosmic terror has been a theme for me this week, having reviewed Dagon (2001), In the Mouth of Madness (1995) and now the latest from Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson, the duo that brought us Spring (2014), I feel as if maybe the old gods are trying to tell me something. In the cosmic horror The Endless (2017) we have a pair of siblings, Justin (Justin Benson) and Aaron (Aaron Moorhead), eking out a rather shitty life of poverty somewhere in California, performing menial jobs and eating lots of Ramen. We learn that ten years prior the older brother Justin and his sibling were part of what they call a "UFO death-cult", with Justin pulling himself and his younger brother Aaron out of it for fear of cult-y stuff like ritual castration and deadly kool-aid drinking. Now years later they receive a video cassette in the mail from cult member Annie (Callie Hernandez, Blair Witch) that triggers a return to the Southern Californian desert were the cult have a compound, the surface level premise for the re-visit is closure, but you get the feeling that the brothers sort of miss the communal lifestyle despite recognizing that it wasn't healthy for them, though the younger sibling has fonder memories of the place. 

They return not knowing how they'll be received, but they are greeted warmly by Hal (Tate Ellington, Sinister 2) and welcomed by everyone else with open arms, but the friendliness has an underlying strangeness to it, it is a cult after all. As we see more of life within the cult it seems more hipster communal than straight-up cult, but that's not to say there isn't lots of weirdness afoot.

The communal life is very artisan, everyone has a skill, big red beardo Tim (Lew Temple, Waiting) makes an addictive home brew, Anna makes clothing, they practice archery, art and magic, and then there's a strange game of tug-o-war they call "the struggle", which entails yanking on a rope that ascends into the night sky, and something unknown and unseen is tugging on the other end, and while the older brother offers an Earthbound explanation it's dismissive and not at all disarming. While all this is happening the cult members give each other in strange looks in knowing ways implying even more an air of mystery.

The mountainous area is covered with strange nail-shaped rock formations which are never truly explained, it's sort of tossed off that they're ancient lava-rock formations, there's a circular pattern motif throughout, and a localized optical illusion that gives the appearance of two moons in the sky at night, and the discovery that there are recurring time loops in certain areas, and that a the higher power regularly drops communications into their lives by way of Polaroids and vintage media like video cassettes and hard drives. The strangeness isn't isolated to the commune, others in the vicinity who have nothing to do with the cult seem to be stuck in their own personal time-loop Hells, one looking to have originated back to the 18th century, and it's interesting to note the duration of the time loops seem to vary in length wildly. There's also talk of three moons appearing in the sky, signaling something called "the ascension", which surely does sound cult-y and ominous, but what we witness and what's semi-explained hints at anything from a Lovecraftian elder god to an alien influence, or maybe even interdimensional beings, and I love that this movie doesn't reveal too much, it has a mystery that it keeps to itself. I found multiple viewing of the film rewarding, I don't think one is enough, now having watched it four time now I think I have a good understanding of the internal logic, but it still has enough ideas floating around that I think I could watch this with fresh eyes again and walk away with something new to ponder.

In a way the myriad of genuinely interesting ideas the movie floats is a bit of drawback, it's a micro-budgeted film and the budget ceiling does seem to hamper the effectiveness of the exploration of these ideas, but even so the promise shines through with enough cleverness and indie-ingenuity that it worked well enough, it's not wholly satisfying, but I love a movie that reaches for the moon, even if it only lands in the neighbors yard, there's still a lot to celebrate. The main cast here is quite good, including the directors who appear in the main roles, really driving home the main theme of brothers coming together and making important realizations about themselves, but there was one thing that irked me, whenever they were presented with something so fantastically strange or terror-riffic they were so calm and non-plussed about it, a scene of a brother wandering through the desert when confronted by the sun being blotted out for a second, magically appearing Polaroids and an unseen force would have sent me running in fright, he just sort of shrugs it off. The older brother doesn't really show any concern until the dark unknown literally brushes up against him! 

Something I think that is missing here is a consistent tone and carry-through, directing and starring in a movie is fraught with problems I assume, and I think a lack of perspective and through line might be one of the casualties here, but not to a ruinous degree. Sometimes the tone just shifted in a strange way, there's a lot of sibling humor in the dialogue that interrupted a moment or two of weirdness or seriousness that felt off to me. Back to the pluses, the eerie synth score from Jimmy LaValle (The Album Leaf) really amps up the strange tonal quality of the film, interestingly recycling the public domain song "House of the Rising Sun" (made famous by The Animals) over and over in both song and score interpretation, it has a strange quality about it that fits the film perfectly. 

The look of the film is a mixed bag for me, shot anamorphically it has a kind of ugly desaturated, low-contrast look about it, but I like the way the semi-flat image distorts giving this reality-bender an otherworldly feel at times, other times I didn't care for it. Movies are like comics for me, if I don't like the artwork I find it hard to get into the story, but I did come around to it eventually. At times the film brought to mind influential interdimensional lo-fi film Equinox (1967), I really feel that movie had an influence on this one, the directors have a love for Lovecraftian terror, as evidenced by their previous film Spring (2014), and I would not be surprised if Equinox was on their mind while making this one, but I guess I could just be reading that into it based on my own love for it.  

Audio/Video: The Endless (2017) arrives on region-free DVD from Umbrella Entertainment,  the image is anamorphic 2.40:1 widescreen with an English Dolby digital surround mix, there are no subtitles. The disc looks and sounds good, no issues with the A/V, but unfortunately the disc is barebones without a start-up menu or trailer. This is definitely a film along the lines of Donnie Darko where I could have found myself pouring through the extras looking for insights, so a few more extras would have been appreciated.   

The Endless (2017) is a thought-provoking slice of Lovecraftian cosmic terror that's overstuffed with big ideas and themes, while the budget doesn't always make it easy to explore those ideas I like the that not everything is revealed and over-explained. If you were a fan of the directors previous film Spring (2014) I think you're primed for this one, or if you're just into weird Lovecraftian horror, there's a lot here to digest, I recommend watching it more than once, it's one of those movies.

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