The filmmaking duo of Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead have been wowing science-fiction and horror connoisseurs for over a decade now, with offbeat indie projects like “Spring,” “The Endless” and “Synchronic.” Their latest, the spooky and funny “Something in the Dirt,” is perhaps the purest expression yet of their aesthetic. Conceived and shot during the pandemic — in just a few locations, with a small cast led by Benson and Moorhead themselves — the movie at times feels like a spur-of-the-moment, stream-of-consciousness trip through the duo’s personal obsessions.
“Something in the Dirt” starts simply. Benson plays Levi, a burned-out L.A. bartender moving into what he’s sure will be his last apartment in the city before he moves away: a run-down flat where the doors don’t quite close and inexplicable noises abound. On arrival, Levi meets his neighbor John (Moorhead), a struggling photographer trying to get over a recent breakup by clinging to his apocalyptic religion. When these two witness an actual supernatural phenomenon — in the form of a levitating ashtray — they do what any longtime Angelenos would. They grab their cameras and start making a documentary, which they hope to sell to Netflix … and thus solve all their problems.
Parts of “Something in the Dirt” take the form of that documentary, with after-the-fact confessionals hinting that Levi and John made some questionable ethical choices while shooting their film — and that something went horribly awry along the way. Mostly the story follows these two guys as they’re making the movie, having amusingly prickly creative disagreements while they gradually get to know each other better. Each has secrets, cleverly revealed to the audience in the middle of the action, while the amateur filmmakers are reacting to the accumulating oddities around them.
And when their conversations aren’t taking sudden turns toward the uncomfortably personal, they’re filled with wild and entertaining speculation about the nature of what they’ve actually found. These guys have grown up on “X-Files” reruns and YouTube videos about the paranormal, which they combine with their accumulated knowledge of Southern California history to concoct plausible-sounding theories about why their apartment complex — and by extension their home city — is so weird and magical.
Benson and Moorhead can’t sustain the relaxed hangout vibe of “Something in the Dirt” all the way to the end. When they have to start resolving their minimal plot — by explaining what happened to these guys, and offering firmer explanations for all the strange sounds and floaty things — the movie comes back down to earth a bit. But for the first 90 minutes or so, there’s remarkable vibrancy and spontaneity to this picture, as its creators and stars seem to be coming up with their story on the spot, with the cameras rolling. They seem inspired and excited. The mood is infectious.
‘Something in the Dirt’
Rated: R, for language and a brief violent image
Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes
Playing: Starts Nov. 4, AMC The Americana at Brand 18, Glendale; AMC Burbank Town Center 6; Universal Cinemas AMC at Citywalk, Universal City; AMC Sunset 5, West Hollywood; AMC Orange 30