Review: ‘Something in the Dirt’ – Where the Cosmic Horror is the Friends We Made Along the Way

You know what you don’t hear about enough in horror? The power of friendship. It’s all ‘eviscerate this’ and ‘dismember that’, but where’s the love? 

The idea of horror and its effect on friendship is something that my favourite current working filmmakers, Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson have been digging into over the course of ten years and five features. All of their features – Resolution, Spring, The Endless, Synchronic, and now Something In The Dirt, are effectively cosmic horror two-handers, focusing largely on a pair of characters and their relationship with one another. What’s interesting to me is that only Spring makes this connection a romantic one. In all the others, the two leads are intertwined in a friendship so deep that it elevates the stakes of the movie to life and death. 

This time around, Benson and Moorhead direct themselves once again, like they did in The Endless. Benson’s Levi and Moorhead’s John are two Los Angeles neighbors that happen upon each other over a smoke break in a run-down apartment complex that they share in LA. The pair seem to have a connection right away, and even if you didn’t know that the two actors were lifelong friends outside of the movie, their chemistry would be palpable. If any part of this friendship were unbelievable Something In The Dirt would fall flat right from the jump, but fortunately the bond between John and Levi, like Moorhead and Benson, is as rock solid a foundation to build as any movie pairing.

Bartender Levi dreams of leaving Los Angeles, spooked by the ever-present threat of the wildfires in the Hollywood hills, but decides to hunker down in his new, spartan apartment while he plans his next move. John, a wedding photographer and former math teacher, for his part, is crookedly charming. He’s welcoming from the start, and certainly likeable, but there’s something slightly askew with the way he projects maniacal Mormon vibes. The blood – sorry, spilled cocktail – on his shirt is a bit of a red flag. Both characters push each other down a rabbit hole of conspiracies and theories that lead them to meticulously document the strange happenings in Levi’s apartment, ostensibly for a documentary for Netflix that could make both of them rich. The deliciousness of this opportunity for the unmoored pair, filmmaking for a popular streaming service and possibly producing the next Tiger King being the clearest path to fame in our modern world, is enticing to both John and Levi. Both characters reveal over the course of the film that they have experienced some level of failure in their lives, leaving them both in a crumbling Los Angeles apartment complex with an emptiness to be filled by the prospect of the magic and potential for notoriety that would come with making a movie about the piece of crystal that forms the conceit of Something in the Dirt.

The crystal ashtray that the movie centres around is the film’s McGuffin, where this seemingly-innocuous object is given gravity and significance, a haunted totem whose reflections mean so much more than a trick of lighting. So too is Levi’s closet in his otherwise austere apartment. The door doesn’t close, and the seemingly-meaningless scratch marks on the frame take on new significance in the eyes of math-whiz John. The two ponder, argue, commiserate, and record the weird lights and floating particles that permeate the apartment walls. Like Moorhead and Benson’s first film, Resolution, there are ideas here about how a subject is irrevocably changed when it’s documented, and how a filmmaker and documentarian experiences an equivalent change. Filmmaking wouldn’t be filmmaking, especially on the scale of either John and Levi’s project or Moorhead and Benson’s, if it were an easy endeavor.

Ultimately, Something in the Dirt, as is outright stated in the film’s closing credits, is about “making movies with your friends.” John and Levi’s documentary for Netflix, and Aaron and Justin’s cosmic horror movie for all of us. It’s clear from the many friends that pop up as talking heads in the context of the film that Something in the Dirt is a project that came together both because and in spite of a couple of years of isolation. Both filmmakers took those challenges and used them to create a film that is influenced by and is a reaction to quarantine life. As we navigate the scary world brought on by the pandemic and isolation and everything else, the friends we latch onto – the longtime ones and those we pick up along the way – help to assuage our fears and act as vital sounding boards for whatever crazy ideas pop into our heads. Because, when it’s conspiracies all the way down, one of them is bound to be true. Perhaps the scariest truism in Something in the Dirt is that it’s our friends, those who know us best and where all of our softest points lie, who can scare and hurt us most deeply.

Something in the Dirt, produced during the throes of the pandemic, seems like the ideal project to do with a small crew and with the limited sets that quarantine forced on so many filmmakers. One might say that Benson and Moorhead have been preparing for this ~new normal~ for their whole careers, making the kind of small-scale productions that COVID has forced all directors to grapple with and incorporate in some form, relying on the quality of the writing and the performances over big set pieces, effects, and other not-so-cheap thrills. Something in the Dirt is emblematic of the kind of movie-making that I’ve always loved, but which the pandemic has brought to the forefront of indie horror. The kind of movie that strips stories down to their essence and presents them, buck-naked, to the world. The kind of movie that’s born, and can only be born, from friendship.

Something in the Dirt is currently out in theatres from XYZ Films.

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