Aaron Moorhead & Justin Benson play neighbors turned unlikely friends who team up to film a documentary about the paranormal & other big questions.
Remember when conspiracy theories used to be fun? Well, maybe “fun” isn’t the right word, but entertaining? Once, they were limited to harmless weirdos who would gladly give a presentation on chemtrails or how many different assassins were actually at Dealey Plaza when JFK passed by, but could also at least maintain some veneer of normalcy. Then the internet made it easier for people to spend most (instead of just some) of their time discussing their favorite conspiracies, without anyone telling them that they were getting obsessed, or that what they were saying sounded insane. And then, of course, QAnon turned conspiracy theories into a kind of religion, one in which its followers were willing to kill to prove their belief. It stopped being entertaining a long time ago, and now, like a lot of things about the world in its current state, it’s just bleak and terrifying.
Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead, whose skill for doing a lot with very little impressed critics and viewers alike in Synchronic and The Endless, now take on the lure of the conspiracy theory in Something in the Dirt. Slow burn cosmic horror, it follows neighbors who are drawn together in their desire to explore the strange goings-on in a Los Angeles apartment building.
Filmed during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic (and dedicated “to making movies with your friends”), it opens with Levi (Benson), an amiable slacker (or whatever they call slackers these days) moving into a new apartment. It’s not the most glamorous place in the world (in fact, it’s Benson’s real life apartment), but one gets the impression that the laidback Levi would be satisfied with just a place to lay his head and a toilet. He’s barely settled in before he meets his oddball neighbor John (Moorhead), a recently divorced wedding photographer. Though they seem to have little in common besides a smoking habit, they hit it off and become, if not friends exactly, then friendly acquaintances.
While in Levi’s apartment, they both notice a crystal ashtray hovering in the air, giving off brilliant beams of colored light. It doesn’t take long for John and Levi to agree that (a) something supernatural is happening, and (b) the best course of action is for them to film a documentary about it, in the hopes of selling it to Netflix. Their enthusiasm makes up for their lack of knowledge, as John attempts to film with a full SD card, and Levi doesn’t know how to put a camera into focus. It becomes quickly apparent that they’re dealing with something much bigger than they realize, but rather than let it scare them off, they go deeper, uncovering secret codes, mutated plants, and much more, all of which seems to be connected to a mysterious power emanating somewhere behind a closet in Levi’s apartment.
As John and Levi become more consumed with figuring out what this all means (if anything), it becomes evident that they’re hiding things from each other, some of which is merely embarrassing, but others potentially dangerous. A wariness develops between them that gradually becomes distrust, then paranoia, then anger, as it becomes clearer that what they’re dealing with might not just be beyond their own comprehension, but this world itself.
Part found footage, and part faux documentary, with a wry sense of humor, Something in the Dirt is certainly one of the most unique takes on cosmic horror in a while. While not about COVID-19, it taps into many individuals’ need to find some sort of greater meaning behind it, even insisting that there was some relevance or pattern to the number 19 (when in reality it was simply the year the virus was discovered). In a time when gaslighting has wormed its way into the mainstream whether from politicians or the media, it cleverly plays fast and loose with how much any of this is actually happening (if any of it at all), or if it might all be a con run by a couple of opportunistic bums with not much at stake. Whatever you think might be going on, there’s no way to be certain.
Though it occasionally gets tangled up in its own mythos (whether it’s extraterrestrials, the Pythagorean theory, or occultist Aleister Crowley, nothing is too out there for John and Levi to reject completely), and its scares are so low-key it may leave some horror fans wanting, Something in the Dirt grabs the viewers attention from the first few minutes. It’s a fascinating approach to have John and Levi remain just as mysterious to each other as they do to the audience. We never really know if anything they say about themselves is true, whether when they know they’re being recorded, or not. It adds to an overall feeling of discordance, which is where the real scares come from.
Benson and Moorhead’s skill as filmmakers comes from creating a sense of unease in the mundane, not unlike David Lynch. Evidently John and Levi’s apartment building is directly under a flight path, because there always seems to be an airplane flying overhead. When they first meet outside the building, smoke is billowing in the distance, and neither of them seem terribly concerned about it (one can assume that this is actually normal in Los Angeles, where wildfires are a way of life, but it’s still unsettling to see). There’s always some kind of ambient noise, whether it’s the sound of apartment life, electricity humming or traffic in the distance. It’s the ceaseless noise of a world both known and unknown to us. We can look a little closer to see what it all means, but maybe we’re not meant to know.
Something in the Dirt premieres in limited theatrical release November 4th & on VOD November 20th.
Something in the Dirt Trailer: