Where others might see a crystal ashtray, DIY filmmaking duo Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead envision some kind of haunted relic, a portal to another dimension or maybe just the ideal prop on which to base their next screwy sci-fi imagination-tickler. Audiences who’ve experienced a Moorhead&Benson film — eerie vacation-sex nightmare “Spring,” perhaps, or else UFO death-cult puzzler “The Endless” — already know how the pair can spin elaborate mind games out of duct tape, twine and popsicle sticks. In “Something in the Dirt,” they somehow manage more with less than ever.
Starting with said ashtray and a nearly empty apartment, plus the two of them as pretty much the entire cast, Benson and Moorhead have delivered a cross between “Poltergeist” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” on a tiny fraction of the budget. Just as Richard Dreyfuss nearly drove himself crazy carving Devils Tower from a plate of mashed potatoes, convincing himself his freaky visions must mean something, “Something in the Dirt” depicts two seemingly rational Angelenos trying to make sense of a levitating hunk of glass.
Levi Danube (Benson, looking like he could be Jake Gyllenhaal’s stunt double) has just moved into L.A.’s cheapest apartment, which may or may not be a former crime scene. There’s a strange energy emanating from the closet, whose door won’t close, and someone has scrawled cryptic physics equations on the interior. Wildfires rage in the hills above the building — the new normal for L.A. — and it’s no wonder Levi is one step from leaving town.
Downstairs, in the courtyard, he meets John Daniel (Moorhead), a freelance wedding photographer dressed like a potentially homicidal Mormon missionary. (Turns out that’s not blood but a spilled cocktail splattered across the front of his button-down shirt.) The guy’s friendly enough, but also slightly … off. Like the homoerotic duo in David Lynch’s “Mulholland Drive,” these two strangers click almost instantly, forming a chaste yet charged connection that opens their minds to the supernatural.
Levi invites John up to his pad, where they notice the aforementioned ashtray floating a few feet off the ground. It’s a bona fide optical illusion, blasting a spectrum of colored beams around the room and convincing both that they’re witnessing a supernatural event that, if they could just film it, could make them rich (if only Netflix will agree to buy their documentary). As a meta inside joke, the film presents itself as one of those corny/crappy paranormal movies that do so well on streaming.
John runs downstairs to get his camera; Levi rigs his phone to record. The phenomenon repeats, growing increasingly powerful as they study it: The closet generates light and heat, crystals sprout from its corners and a houseplant mutates amid all the vibrations. Bewildered, the two guys try to interpret the clues as best they can, projecting their biases and throwing out all kinds of bizarre theories. The number 1908 appears, pointing to an old reel-to-reel stashed under the building, and there’s some connection to a recurring triangle-spiral symbol they start to notice all over town. Maybe it’s “our creator” trying to reach us, muses John, who hides details about the doomsday religion to which he belongs. “Are you quoting Dan Brown books?” mocks Levi, who has secrets of his own.
They both want to believe, egging each other on toward the kind of collect-your-own-fingernail-clippings meltdown seen in movies like “Eraserhead” and “Pi.” These days, audiences are inundated by conspiracies and crackpot theories, and though Benson and Moorhead play it all seriously, a wicked critique of Americans’ insatiable appetite for unreality runs throughout (by the climactic scene, even gravity no longer seems to operate as it should). The real-life filmmaking duo slyly cast doubt on their on-screen counterparts, suggesting that they may be manipulating their own story — which itself is a work of fantasy, of course.
Presented as a pseudo-documentary, “Something in the Dirt” is intercut with testimonials by the two amateur filmmakers and their crew, who signal early that something went wrong along the way. One interviewee forebodingly refers to “the dead one.” Others question their use of reenactments and visual effects — which, to be fair, are reasonably convincing, even if the whole thing relies on a massive suspension of disbelief on our part.
The bargain Benson and Moorhead make with audiences goes something like this: If we buy in, then we can participate in what often feels more like an elevated form of play than some attempt to compete with slick, studio product. “Something in the Dirt” is closer to the rickety (but fun) film-within-the-film of “Super 8” than the glossy (but tiresome) ride wrapped around it. It’s fitting that the result should be dedicated to “making movies with your friends,” as it says in the end credits. For first-timers and fans alike, it can feel like watching your buddies’ latest project.