Eric’s Review: Something in the Dirt (2022 H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival)

ATMOSfx! Woo!
Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson in Something in the Dirt (2022)
★★★★ out of ★★★★★

Directed by Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead

Fear the Pythagorean Theorem!

Wait… what?

The latest film from trendsetting actor/directors Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson explores the fear of pattern languages. Math can be a frustratingly daunting experience at best and mind-bogglingly cryptic at the extremes. Think of it. Irrational numbers. ∞. Triskadecaphobia. π. Abstract numbers. Dividing by zero. What does it all mean? The laws and rules of mathematics that govern our lives can be twisted. Oh, the Horror!

H.P. Lovecraft would evoke the concept of Non-Euclidean geometries as a way of describing how some structures were impossible or unfathomable. Something in the Dirt explores the potential of the humble triangle, tessellated to infinity (and beyond!) to the point of breaking the laws of time and space. AAAAAIIIIIEEEEE!!!

That is the inner 10th-grade version of me not being able to handle a trigonometry quiz, and trust me, that is a nightmare that I still suffer from to this day.

Benson and Moorhead have a knack for doing the quiet cosmic horror film. Trippy, contemplative, and by far the funniest movie they have made together, the pair also star as an odd couple who become fascinated with strange phenomena that occur in their humble Los Angeles apartment complex, both fed by secrets and obsessions that lead them down some pretty dark paths. The narrative logic is tenuous at best, but the pair are always entertaining on screen, and this is by-in-large a two-man stage drama with mysterious floating objects.

The tandem of writer/director Justin Benson and DP/director Aaron Moorhead have carved a distinctive niche for themselves in the world of independent science fiction/horror. They have mastered the critically acclaimed cult film, with their previous productions Resolution, Spring, The Endless, and Synchronic. Their films are often narratively and visually gauzy dream-like affairs, with introspective dialogue and layers of cosmic mystery. Time travel. Transformations. Cults. The unexplainable. Something in the Dirt is absolutely a sibling film to their previous work.

Aaron Moorhead in Something in the Dirt (2022)

This film also features two terrific characters: the vagabond surfer-dude Levi (Moorhead) and the buttoned-down, but somehow deadbeat John (Benson). The two are seemingly destined to be partners in all this weirdness. They are new neighbors, who become fast friends. Something that seals their relationship is their shared experience of witnessing a floating crystal ashtray in Levi’s apartment, which pushes them to document and prove the amazing things they witness.

Is it a poltergeist? Aliens? The deviant patterns of cosmic mathematics? They believe they have found a culprit: the ancient Pythagoreans. Damn those ancient Greeks! Spiraling right triangles appear in every vision. The pair is determined that they could find fame and fortune if they can prove that the phenomena are real and that their theories are true. They had a grasp on concepts that modern humans could not possibly grasp, particularly when there is a surprise pop quiz to be taken.

Of course, capturing these events proves elusive, and the mysterious happenings are not exactly cooperating with their attempts to record the unknowable. Plus their ideas are just plain mad.

As John and Levi begin piecing together their bizarre conspiracies involving patterns and local lore, they uncover a subtle madness within each theory, and just when they think they have the phenomena pegged, a new coincidence wrecks their theories. What’s more, they begin to turn on each other as they carry personal secrets and lies, that when revealed, bust their bonds of friendship, at the same time that their enigmatic findings start becoming dangerous.

The Benson and Moorhead team never makes a movie that is easy to grasp in one sitting, and this may be their loopiest and twistiest story yet. The film is layered with terrific comedic bits, which in an odd way helps to ground the film for the audience. The goofy parts provide a centering mechanism that keeps you engaged while John and Levi stop making sense, and the events get progressively more… assertive.

Something in the Dirt is like walking along a path that skirts a spooky woodland. There is something really foreboding just adjacent to the story, but it never dives headlong into it. For those of you who follow these filmmakers, you have a good sense of what I mean. Cosmic horror is a very suggestive thing. The sheer vastness of the unexplained becomes a thing of dread. It is a movie devoid of jump scares or villains, but the concepts themselves are the uneasy framing of reality that Lovecraft himself loved to employ.

Something in the Dirt is rated R, mostly for language, but there is nothing that your average teenager couldn’t handle, though younger audiences will almost certainly be baffled by the plot. Then again, so will a sizeable portion of the adult audience. You have to let the story roll over you like a tide of mysteries.

This film was seen at the 2022 H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival, which was the perfect venue for their brand of materials. One day we’ll get them to come in person to do Q&A, which would be hugely enlightening, as there is much to be interpreted in their movies.

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