Horror in the high desert

My dad had this half-finished cabin in Descanso

Helix High alumnus Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead in a scene from The Endless.
  • Helix High alumnus Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead in a scene from The Endless.

Last Sunday, I took the 79 up to Julian for a family gathering with friends. I usually take the less-winding 67-78 route, but I was trying to work out a musical round about the French Revolution with my daughters and missed the exit off the 8. By way of consolation, I said that the 79 was a prettier drive.

That’s true, but it’s also spookier, thanks in part to the silver skeletons of the trees that burned here during the Cedar Fire in 2003. “Ghost trees!” I called to the kids as we rounded a bend and beheld an entire mountainside covered with pale spindles rising from an olive-green tangle of new growth. “It looks like the dead trees are trying to escape the live ones,” offered my daughter.

“Death swallowed up in life,” I answered. But I was whistling past the arboreal graveyard, and I knew it.

Aaron Moorhead grew up far from here, in the swamps of Florida, but he knows what I mean. “Certain parts of that area look like life on Mars,” he says. “It’s very odd. You don’t even notice how strange it is until you put a camera on it.” And he did put a camera on it, when he co-directed the existential horror film The Endless (in theaters now) with San Diego native Justin Benson.

While developing The Endless, Benson recalled reading Stephen King’s Desperation. “There was this idea of a haunted geology. And beyond being haunted, some primordial force, probably older than man, that is affecting the region in an otherworldly way. That stuck in my head.”

It shows in the upside-down stalagmites that dot the film’s back country landscape — indicating a place where “gravity is slightly off.” Among other things.

The Endless is, geographically and otherwise, connected to Moorhead and Benson’s 2013 film Resolution. Benson conceived that one while thinking of something “that Aaron and I could make with the money in our bank accounts. I knew my dad had this half-finished cabin in Descanso, so we built a script that could be contained in that location. Plus, even though it’s not your traditional horror landscape, there is something unnerving about it.”

The ghost trees, the great swaths of long and long-dead grasses…the camps and collectives. (“Desert flowers are insane,” says my daughter as she notices the fierce, brief blooms. “Kind of like desert people.”)

During shooting on Resolution, the crew stayed at Descanso’s Camp Oliver, which gets made over in The Endless into Camp Arcadia, a rural commune of seemingly ageless craft brewers. And all it takes is a man standing at the entrance with a cheek-splitting rictus to start the skin prickling. “We knew we wouldn’t have the money to ‘show the monster,’” says Moorhead. “So before we even started writing, we decided we would make a movie where, if we had shown the monster, it would have been contrary to the theme.”

Sometimes, it’s enough to see birdflight over the high desert being affected by some unseen force. “As long as you deliver some goods in some way, no one will be disappointed.”

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