In Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead’s latest, SOMETHING IN THE DIRT (2022), two men become unlikely friends and then documentary collaborators after they discover a strange phenomenon occurring in one of their crummy apartments in Los Angeles. It’s fun, but the payoff doesn’t quite match the tease on this one.
I’m a fan of Benson and Moorhead’s work at XYZ Films (THE ENDLESS, SYNCHRONIC, etc.). They have a terrific way of taking a titillating horror concept and making it feel local and lived in with characters who feel like everyday people, regardless of film budget. SOMETHING IN THE DIRT is no exception. Made during the quarantine, it feels even grittier and more DIY than their previous works.
In this film, John (Moorhead) and Levi (Benson) live in the same crummy Los Angeles building. John is a photographer and member of an apocalyptic evangelical church; Levi is a heavy-drinking slacker with a sketchy past. Bumping into each other, the two men hang out until they discover a strange phenomenon occurring in Levi’s apartment. Deciding to document it together, the men discover far more among the building’s odd history and additional phenomena. Along the way, they discuss various theories about what’s happening based on pop culture conspiracy theories and science, which makes for a lot of little interesting diversions.
The story reminded me of Peter Clines’s 14, a novel about the tenants of an old apartment building that band together to discover it is in fact a giant machine. While that novel built step by step toward a big payoff, SOMETHING IN THE DIRT only gets more muddled until by the end we’re not sure what happened and we know even less than the characters. As a result, it kind of went splat for me at the end, and while the film made its point about how weirdly credulous humans are, the premise had the potential for something far bigger and potentially mind blowing.
So in the end, this one was good, it was fun, and I love these guys, but it wasn’t their strongest work for me as a viewer, as the landing didn’t quite stick and, more, could have been incredible.