As Above So Below (2014)
Directed by John Erick Dowdle
Note: This review contains mild spoilers, though nothing that is not shown in the trailer.
As Above So Below has been getting a fair bit of attention. For a mainstream horror the hype surrounding it has been building up and up at a surprising rate. Certainly where I live there’s attractive red and black posters lining the walls and bus stops. And even non-horror people are asking ‘what’s with the God-damn piano?’ When punters talk about it, it’s not in the usual found footage terms of being a Blair Witch clone. Rather As Above So Below is anticipated with, at least, a greater sense of hope than the inevitable next three or four Paranormal Activity films ever will. But is it really any better?
Coming from American first person veteran John Erick Dowdle (the man behind the excellent Poughkeepsie Tapes and the workman like Rec remake Quarantine), As Above So Below takes the tired narrative style far from its usual woodlands home, going to Paris and burrowing beneath the ground and into the city catacombs. Shot partly on location, the film is full of all the skulls, tunnels and noises one would expect. It’s a pick of setting which has been strangely absent from the genre. That I know of, these miles of underground have rarely been seen in horror outside of the dismal straight-to-DVD (Alecia Moore, aka Pink) vehicle Catacombs. In that less than mediocre chiller the area leant itself to a rave party. This time it is being illegally scoured in search for a philosopher’s stone by archaeologist Scarlett and her team, consisting of several local ‘rebels’ and an at first reluctant love interest. The plucky Scarlett gets played with passion and vigour by the relatively unknown Perdita Weeks. With the energy she puts into the role (that could so easily have been generic) you’re almost forgiving of how unrealistically qualified the fresh faced character is (she has multiple doctorates, a further degree and a black belt). The others are generally up to scratch, but then the real star of the show is the catacombs, right? Indeed, the film’s greatest asset is these miles of dark tunnels where anything could lurk. After a fairly speedy beginning (which begins with some fast-paced action on the other side of the world) our characters are stuck beneath the ground with the near mandatory no way out. Combined with an intriguing lore created for the movie, the tunnels are as thick with atmosphere as they are skeletons. Watching the team descend deeper underground it’s difficult not to get excited about what’s down there.
And so we come to the biggest weakness in the movie – what’s down there. For the first two third it’s mostly what you’d expect: creepy chanting, corridors that return always to the self-same place, in-group fighting (‘there’s something down here’ vs. ‘no there’s not’ repeated ad nauseum) and the all too naive posse getting repeatedly trapped. It’s no exaggeration to say that for most of the first 75 minutes you’re at least 15 minutes ahead of the film. Yep, how very yawnsome. Especially when plundering the unfamiliar depths and darkness of Paris, this predictability is akin to a giant flashlight lighting the way. The first two thirds watches like a horror movie made for those that don’t often watch them. Along with some very exposition-riddled dialogue and telegraphed character arcs it’s hard not to completely write the movie off with half an hour to go. Indeed, by the time our characters reach the gates to Hell I was tempted to smugly subtitle this review ‘abandon hope all ye who enter the cinema’ (a heading at least one website will use). But then shortly after the movie picked up significantly.
Such a late blooming is unfortunate because, as with the recent Oculus, when the creative team reach the last act (finally ditching the usual tropes) there’s some cool ideas in there. Had the whole project been tackled with this vision then it could have been something so much more notable. The film gets an identity of its own as the makers offer tension, a couple of genuine scares and, most notably, some stuff you won’t have seen done dozens of times before in better films. In particular there’s a tense chase sequence that revisits old locations, but giving an added threat they were previously lacking. It’s just, as with the previously mentioned enchanted-mirror hit, when this happens it’s too little too late. You’ve already been pulled out the movie and become that worst thing a horror audience member can become: bored. Furthermore, due to the faffing around earlier it’s frustrating to see a decent addition, concerning characters bringing their personal demons down with them, go completely underdeveloped. What could have become The Descent meets Event Horizon in instead more like The Cave meets Supernova. Or better yet, if you’ll forgive me one more lazy comparison then it’s this year’s Chernobyl Diaries: i.e. a potentially great location and an inspired last act spoilt by a very dull midsection and a script that sounds too much like a box ticking exercise. From how much I dug The Poughkeepsie Tapes I wanted to like this movie. I really did. I just couldn’t (yeah, yeah – first world problems). So would I recommend it? Not really. Just to see the locations and a refreshingly new mythos, then it’s maybe good for an EE Wednesday when there’s nothing else on. Or perhaps if you’re not a seasoned horror fan then there’s definitely fun to be had . But for genre enthusiasts, who think of tropes as being like friends of friends that show up to ruin otherwise promising parties, this hardly offers a movie to get lost in.