By Elias Savada.
With Moorhead&Benson’s latest feature, they’re back in front of the camera, playing the two neighborly leads in this satirical, self-parodying Hollywood Hills nightmare of their own making.”
The “intergalactic geniuses” Moorhead&Benson, a.k.a. Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead, are back to their deviously genre-bending antics for their fifth tag team feature. They’ve capably crafted kangaroo shit loony films like Synchronic (2019), the 2018 psychological thriller The Endless, the horror romance Spring (2014), and Resolution, their 2012 UFO/Death Cult debut. Paranormal adventures await in Something in the Dirt.
Their offbeat films are small idiosyncratic gems that exist off the beaten path of the multiplex universe and tilt toward the darker side of life. Recently, they’ve thankfully been allowed to dabble in mainstream television, having helmed some episodes of Moon Knight, Archive 81, and The Twilight Zone reboot. They’re also on board to direct many of the Loki episodes for its second season.
With their latest feature, they’re back in front of the camera, playing the two neighborly leads in this satirical, self-parodying Hollywood Hills nightmare of their own making.
Benson plays the tattooed, longhaired, aging-surfer-vibe-tank-top bartender Levi Danube, while Moorhead takes a more conservative approach to his John Daniels, a short-haired, clean cut, blood-on-his-collared-shirt wedding photographer, former math teacher, and newly christened ex-husband. Soon they are bumbling wannabe filmmakers, trying to capture the extracurricular activities of an oddly shaped quartz ashtray John found in his dingy, ceiling-dripping, unfurnished (but lease-free!) L.A. apartment, having just moved in a few hours earlier. Temporary digs, he says. His next stop will probably be somewhere down the proverbial rabbit hole.
There are two overlapping narratives afoot here. First, the duo’s efforts to capture the levitating rock discovery on video and sell it to Netflix for, say, $10 million. The TED Talk veneer suggests a steep, unseen, learning curve. Fat chance. Second, moments later, the film morphs into a polished pseudo-documentary, complete with talking heads, that adds to the mystery — not just of the crystal, but how it affected the men, whose documentary filmmaking abilities apparently now include recreating the scenes we’ve seen earlier. The two visions rock back and forth throughout the entire project, with the latter filling in pieces of the entire “cosmic puzzle.”
This self-reflecting parody might not be obvious to folks unfamiliar with the filmmakers’ earlier works, despite the marked delineation between the two styles. One with a very low-budget, inept approach, the other with well-dressed versions of Levi and John as “documentarians” and Michael Felker, the actual film editor of Something in the Dirt (and earlier collaborations with the directors), playing an alternate version of himself commenting on the hassles of dealing with John and Levi. Benson’s screenplay also plays off some of the pair’s earlier efforts, poking fun at their alter-egos here. Filmakers portraying filmmakers. How meta!
This new film also is peppered with pseudo-cultish history featuring secret signs throughout L.A., offering up more than a few bizarre supernatural conspiracy theories. The filmmakers take a deep dive into Aleister Crowley, the English occultist often called the “Master of Darkness.” Some of his evil punctuates the film.
On a technical level, sound always plays a heavy part in their films, and that is no exception here. A throbbing, anxious soundtrack (from Jimmy LaValle, their go-to composer) and the eerie sound design by Yah’el Dooley, amp up the anguish, playfully so in the talking head portions. Elsewhere, it’s the hum of angry electricity that leaks through the off kilter outdoor meter boxes, a whoosh from a creepy closet, or the muffled buzzing/gurgle of the levitating ashtray, that add to the organic spooky effects.
And don’t get confused by the abundant quick-cut visuals (lobsters, coyotes, home videos, etc.) that obliquely reflect on their dialogue. It’s part of their directorial strategy, but also helps stretch the length of the film to just under two hours. There’s also a lot of unsettling clutter in the Los Angeles sky, especially low flying aircraft and a nasty looking smoke plume from a nearby wildfire. Everything is there to keep you on edge.
Generally speaking, this is a 2-hander, with the filmmakers in most shots chatting, hypothesizing, and arguing with each other. John’s good sense with numbers helps in their search for the crystal’s true meaning, but. I only have one real issue with the “documentary,” when there are shots of John and Levi being taken by someone else. Who is shooting the camera when they are both in the same shot?
Well, the answer is their co-producer and longtime friend David Lawson, Jr. as the pandemic forced him into their room (they live in the same complex where the film was shot). It’s one way during Covid to get together with your best buds and make one hell of a movie. And have fun doing it. Hopefully you can enjoy the joke as well.
Maybe I’m giving this too much thought in trying to write this film up. Or maybe it’s just the quartz manipulating me to really like the film. Maybe Moorhead&Benson should make a movie about that!
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He is an executive producer of the horror film German Angst and the documentary Nuts! He co-authored, with David J. Skal, Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning (a revised edition will be published by Centipede Press).