Transcendent: Moorhead & Benson’s Something In The Dirt


Mike Pinnington willingly follows filmmakers Moorhead & Benson down the rabbit hole of their latest film, Something In The Dirt… 

Maybe you’re an aficionado of esoteric so-called wyrd fiction, or a Marvel Cinematic Universe completist (perhaps both?), but chances are, whether you realise it or not, you will likely have seen something conjured from the fevered imaginations of filmmaking duo Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson.

My own introduction to the pair came with 2014’s Spring, a romantic body horror of a movie – if you can envision such a thing. There, we find in Evan a man trying to outrun his past, whose path fatefully crosses with enigmatic geneticist Louise. If they weren’t already, from there, things get, well, complicated. It was a bit of a curio watched on a whim, but it made its mark. I was rooting for Evan and Louise in a very particular set of extreme circumstances. And I vividly recall thinking that, while it felt contemporary (it’s set in modern-day Bologna), many of its ideas seemed very much rooted in ancient mythology.

“The film Shane Carruth might make if he was a big H. P. Lovecraft fan”

I felt this even more keenly with my next encounter with their work, 2017’s The Endless, which I saw as the film Shane Carruth might make if he was a big H. P. Lovecraft fan (disclaimer: I don’t know if he isn’t). It sees brothers Justin and Aaron returning to Camp Arcadia, the ‘UFO death cult’ where they were raised; they find something altogether weirder and even more sinister than that sounds. Unlike them, nobody else seems to have left the compound – is it that they were unable to? Additionally, its inhabitants seem not to have aged. Just what is it about this place, they wonder.

Both Spring and The Endless were notable, not only for their ideas and ambition of vision, but in that they were made on a relative shoestring. 2019’s Synchronic, featuring stars Anthony Mackie and Jamie Dornan, apparently suffered no such budgetary problems, and yet the result is a film that adds up to less than the sum of its parts. Poor reviews followed. Thankfully, it didn’t sink the ship. In fact, it appears increasingly safe to say that we can consider this a mere misstep. And, anyway, the pair were now firmly on the radar of major players.

For proof, we need look no further than stints on 2020’s reboot of The Twilight Zone; Netflix’s sadly cancelled analogue tech horror Archive 81; and Marvel’s Moon Knight. Ironically, had we lost these SFF indie darlings to a kind of mainstream obscurity, satisfied to be doing the rounds on streaming platform shows?

“Something In The Dirt exists in the same universe as The Endless and 2012’s debut, Resolution”

The short answer is an unequivocal no; they seem to be operating on a ‘one for them, one for us’ creative model. For my money, this is a great thing. Take as evidence their new feature, Something In The Dirt, which opens in cinemas across the UK this week. Understandably tight-lipped about how, they will admit that SITD exists in the same universe as The Endless and 2012’s debut, Resolution; as with those earlier movies – we’re willing to bet not insignificantly – we see the pair occupying the lead roles.


On this occasion it is as new neighbours John and Levi, swiftly down the rabbit hole of wild conspiracy theories, LA lore and paranormal activity, having witnessed escalating apparently supernatural ‘events’ in their apartment building. All symbols, uncanny coincidences, portals to parallel universes and golden ratios, it’s a world Moorhead and Benson are obviously very comfortable with. It’s one that refers back to and evokes Lovecraftian grimoire the Necronomicon, a fictional tome fabled to include accounts of ancient (perhaps alien) deities, their history, and how to commune with them.

After the initial encounter, they decide to capitalise. How much does Netflix pay for documentaries at festivals, they idly muse. Soon, however, there excitement turns into a growing sense of unease, especially for Levi, who asks: “Is it possible this is extremely dangerous, and we completely overlooked that part?” They don’t know the half of it. Despite this, as they continue to peel back the layers of the mystery, delving ever deeper, their fates seem bound to it and each other. But any burgeoning friendship that could have developed between the two quickly unravels as each makes personal discoveries about the other – not least, John’s involvement with what Levi refers to as an apocalypse cult.

“Moorhead and Benson transcend the pulpier constraints of genre”

As their experiences get ever more vivid and paranoid, their relationship falls apart. John’s grip on reality frays, seeming shaky at best; by contrast, Levi – who we initially dismiss as a flaky, risk-taking loser – is beginning to seem like the common sense, more together one. The one who should take his own advice. After a certain point, there is will be no turning back. No getting back to the mundane lives they’d become used to.

In Levi and John, we see men in their mid-late thirties stagnating, unambiguously amid a deep malaise of their own making. Their profound discovery only poisons the well further. And there, in the mire of their not quite friendship, is where Moorhead and Benson’s work really excels, transcending some of the pulpier constraints of genre, while simultaneously demonstrating a fondness for it. Yes, they have literally out of this world ideas; yes, the breadth and esoteric detail of their universe is rich; but, as importantly, their films also have humans, flawed as we are, at their centre, tethering them to the messy stuff of life, the type of which we can all recognise.

While Something In The Dirt is about tapping into our ancient need for stories, for fear and wonder, it is also about another desire, just as powerful; as John and Levi each in their own way demonstrates, it is about wanting to believe in something more than ‘this’, something just beyond our usual field of perception.

Mike Pinnington

Something in the Dirt is in UK Cinemas from 4 November

Images, from top: SITD film still; SITD art work

Posted on 03/11/2022 by thedoublenegative