– Summary –
Director : John Erick Dowdle
Year Of Release : 2014
Principal Cast : Perdita Weeks, Ben Feldman, Edwin Hodge, Francois Civil, Marion Lambert, Ali Marhyar, Cosme Castro, Roger Van Hool, Olivia Csiky Trnka.
Approx Running Time : 93 Minutes
Synopsis: When a team of explorers ventures into the catacombs that lie beneath the streets of Paris, they uncover the dark secret that lies within this city of the dead.
What we think : Typically frantic “found footage” film delivers minor scares, certainly not at the level of Dowdle’s previous film, Quarantine. A silly premise with a low-budget vibe and a wrapper of French trashiness, As Above, So Below will elicit some thrills from scare-hunters, but everyone else will either spot the plot coming, or switch it off early when stupidity rules the day.
Nobody likes being underground.
Another “found footage” film, another “documentary being made” premise that turns into a horror story of middling proportions. As Above, So Below, director John Erick Dowdle’s latest film to delve into the dark corners of our nightmares, sees us descend into the bowels of the Parisian catacombs, in search for some mysterious “philospher’s stone”, a literal alchemists Holy Grail, a material said to transmute substances into gold and, in some legends, provide eternal life. Like many films of its ilk, As Above has a fairly interesting, salivatory premise, and a foundation that piqued my interest, but the generic cliches of the genre folded this thing up faster than a house of cards. It’s amazing how much human stupidity ruins the best laid plans, and the bumbling crew of this film’s story inhabit the very poster imagery of human stupidity. As Above, So Below attempts to offer something fresh to the genre, I think, but ultimately, it comes up short. Minor scares and inane acting leave this film one best left in the deep, dark corners, undiscovered.
Plot synopsis courtesy Wikipedia: Scarlett Marlowe (Perdita Weeks), a young alchemy scholar, continues her dead father’s (Roger Van Hool) work searching for the philosopher’s stone, a legendary alchemical substance said to be capable of turning base metals such as lead into gold or silver and grant eternal life, discovered by Nicolas Flamel. After finding the Rose Key in a cave in Iran, she travels to Paris. She enlists the help of George (Ben Feldman), her former lover whom she abandoned in Turkey while in pursuit of the stone. Along with Benji (Edwin Hodge) the cameraman, they translate Flamel’s headstone, which contains a riddle that leads them to a point underneath the streets of Paris. She then enlists the help of a guide called Papillon (François Civil), his girlfriend Souxie (Marion Lambert), and friend Zed (Ali Marhyar) to search the Catacombs beneath Paris, France. George explicitly refuses to go, but is driven into the caves with the group when they are pursued by a policeman. After crawling through a narrow tunnel which collapses, they find themselves before a door that Papillion is reluctant to breach, as the only people who have gone through, including Pap’s friend La Taupe (Cosme Castro), have never been seen again.
I think we’ve established that found footage films should long ago have died a painful, thankful death. The genre’s limitations were reached years back, and now everything since has been regurgitated mixtures of the same tired plots. Typically, a bunch of young folk, reasonably technically minded enough to operate a camera, engage in some dangerous and/or spooky activity – hunting for ghosts, monsters or supernatural beings – and end up running around in the dark screaming and “acting” to cameras strapped to their heads or whatever. Throw a few subtle changes, such as ethnicity or religious overtones, and you have a found footage film prepped and ready to go. Nowadays, these kinds of films spend a little bit of time trying to make their “found footage” premise believable, usually some kind of camera involving a documentary, security footage, or in the case of the terrific My Little Eye, a Big Brother experiment gone wrong. It’s a trope of the genre that’s long since worn out its welcome (much like the genre itself), and every time one of these films rolls across my periphery I tend to throw back my head and lament the lack of new ideas in Hollywood.
John Erick Dowdle made the excellent Quarantine, which was a remake of Spanish horror film REC, and also the commendably solid Devil. He’s a director more than capable of delivering some decent scares, as he’s proven. Given a strong story, and/or strong characters, or at least a nice hook of a plot, Dowdle can manufacture some chills enough to warrant further exploration. As Above, So Below taps into our fear of dark confined places, and supernatural horror. The latter predisposes this film to a certain number of “spooky” occurrences, and indeed delivers on those with aplomb throughout the movie (particularly the raccoon-eyed zombie-woman who follows our cast into the catacombs), but for me it’s more the fear of being trapped underground, a primal terror that film doesn’t quite capture. In fact, no film has adequately captured the “buried alive” terror properly except The Descent. This film attempts to, but can’t muster the strength, or the style, to do that.
Leading this film into oblivion is Scarlett, played with wide-eyed zealotry by Perdita Weeks (you may remember her from her minor role in The Tudors), as a character most viewers will end up wanting to punch right in her dedicated face. Were it not for her insistence on people risking their lives for a mythological ideal, this film wouldn’t even exist; it makes sense that everyone else is just as stupid as she is. Scarlett’s incredible knowledge of not only ancient alchemy, ancient iconography and dead-language deciphering, and the Parisian underground notwithstanding, at least she’s good looking in a dusty outfit and headlamp. George, played by Ben Feldman (a found footage alumni from Cloverfield), is at least sensible enough not to want to go into the darkness of subterranean Paris, although he’s abruptly sent below when a f@cking French policeman bungles into the group. Feldman’s a straight arrow here, and of all the characters, he’s perhaps the most likeable (or empathetic). Benji, the “cameraman” of the film, is a screaming mess of absurd fear and inane banter, delivered by Edwin Hodge. Hodge, who kicked off his career with bit-parts in Die Hard With A Vengeance and The Long Kiss Goodnight, and graduated to adult mainstream with roles in The Purge, and The Purge: Anarchy, as well as 2012’s Red Dawn, rants and raves through the film and offers little but simply more cannon fodder; he’s a dead man walking, it’s only a question of when.
I guess the same could be said for the entire cast, really. It’s a trope of these kinds of films that there’s usually only one, or no, survivor. As the stakes rise, or the walls cave in, and the numbers dwindle, the constant fear of being next on the Grim Reaper’s hitlist ensures the propulsive narrative continues to drive the tension further into the dark. Dowdle mistakes tension and terror for story, spending more time trying to get the cast into the dark at the expense of character. With George being probably the only one I could identify with as a human being, he also delivers one of the stupidest exchanges in the film. “Everybody, look around” he says. “What are we looking for?” asks another character. “I don’t know”, responds George. Gee, quality writing there, guys.
As far as “found footage” films go, this one’s got at least a decent production value. The caverns, tunnels and pits of the underground are truly believable (supposedly they filmed this in the actual catacombs, but hell if I know how they pulled a lot of it off) and engaging, the dingy, dank darkness as oppressive as any set designer could imagine. Using minimal lighting, and a couple of “head-cams” to film the footage, As Above, So Below is nothing if not atmospheric. It’s a shame the characters and plot become so de regeur for the genre, otherwise there’d be something to this film no amount of visual effects or sound design could muster. Speaking of sound design, props to the audio guys for making this film a surround mix to die for – echoes, hints of voices, weird sounds from ethereal places – as the film winds deeper into the bowels of the Earth, the cavernous sound design truly excels.
As Above, So Below convinces enough for some minor spooks and scares, and as long as you’re a fan of the crash-bang sound jump then you’ll enjoy it. As an intellectual work of fiction designed to elicit thrills, the film is depressingly familiar and rote. Purely for production value and a premise that intrigued me, I give this an extra star, but on the whole it’s a fumbled attempt to capitalize on the genre’s strengths.