It’s a bad day in Paris in this cult-y horror flick. Richard argues that it should have been left in the catacombs.
Despite my wish to simply dive in and get this review on the road, I feel compelled to begin with some simple back to basics work. This week’s review is too perfect an example of a general issue I have with the current state of affairs within the horror genre. I’m about to engage in a gross generalisation, but in my experience, horror films on a story level either live or die based on three components. The idea, the situation and the scenes. The idea being the larger concept at play which allows the horror to exist, the situation being the “plot” of the film and how the horror is occurring and to whom, and the scenes being the individual moments where the characters interact with said horror.
To use an example from something well-established, the idea of The Exorcist is that demons or the devil are real and can possess people. The situation is that the demon has possessed little Regan and must have an exorcism. An example of a scary scene is the now-famous spinning head or even the floating bed. The Exorcist is a brilliant and scary film, in large part because all the components listed above are firstly scary, and secondly, they fit together wonderfully. The scenes work as part of the situation and the situation works as part of the idea. However, a lot of modern horror seems to get this wrong in that they may have scary scenes but those beats either happen in a non-scary situation or can’t be tied to a scary idea.
Enter 2014’s As Above, So Below, a film that’s been on my to-do list for a while now, and I finally got around to seeing it. This is a “found footage” film which follows Scarlett (Perdita Weeks), an obsessed archaeologist who wants to track down the Philosopher’s Stone, which she has discovered has been hidden in an uncharted section of the Parisian catacombs. She is accompanied by her semi-love interest George (Ben Feldman), documentarian and found footage source Benji (Edwin Hodge), and an expendable group of French catacomb explorers. Lots of “haunted by your demons” and “can’t escape your past” madness ensues, with some Tomb Raider-level archaeological exploration thrown in for good measure.
Now, I can see where the writer/director team of the Dowdle Brothers wanted to go with this. And using my aforementioned component system, we can find some good building material here. The Paris catacombs are a great setting for a movie, and the use of both helmet cameras and a handheld make for a bit more range than we usually get from these kinds of found footage movies. Some of the scenes are creepy, especially when related to George’s tragic backstory about his younger brother. I’ll even say that the Philosopher’s Stone, while being a bit Harry Potter, is not a bad idea for a mythology-based horror movie. The problem is that none of these things fit together in practically any way, shape or form. “Scary” scenes come and go with a paper-thin connecting thread, and none of it gels very well with the Philosopher’s Stone part of the story, which seems to exist because they had to do something to get them into the catacombs. The film very rarely takes advantage of its wonderful setting. Considering director John Erick Dowdle is the man behind 2010’s hilariously terrible and unbelievably stupid Devil, I can’t say I’m shocked.
While not a fan in general, I will say that found footage can work. The little Spanish gem [Rec] from 2007 being a great example of the form handled well, due mainly to the focus on creating a realistic atmosphere and having a highly motivated camera caught in a high-tension situation, something Dowdle is presumably well aware of having directed the American remake Quarantine in 2008. As Above, So Below aims for a similar effect, but the setting of endless narrow hallways doesn’t allow for the much-needed establishment of location which would compensate for the found footage gimmick, and I feel the story being told would have been served better by the kind of camerawork we saw in 2005’s The Descent. There’s something frustrating about watching interesting ideas being executed poorly. Several aspects of the film could be better explored or even properly explained to create a more cohesive whole.
The performances aren’t stellar but aren’t terrible either. Weeks, better known for her television work, is the only one really keeping the narrative together due predominantly to her being able to sell her character’s fanatical level of belief in the stone. We may not believe the premise, but we do believe that she believes it. Feldman, on the other hand, is so limp-wristed that he probably couldn’t convince me it was Sunday without a calendar, a star chart and an expert witness. To be fair, though, I blame more of that on the writers than I do on the actor in this case.
What we have here is the perfect example of a film which negates its own existence. It’s got good parts, it’s got bad parts, and it’s got parts that just two days later I can’t seem to remember or care about. As Above, So Below is an exercise in give and take, and is perhaps better surmised by what it isn’t rather than what it is. It isn’t scary but it also isn’t boring. It isn’t smart but it also isn’t insulting. At the end of the day, it isn’t good and, unless found footage is really your thing, it really isn’t worth watching.
- The title of the film comes from Masonic teachings and lore which in turn is based heavily on Christian language and belief. Specifically being transcribed from a part of the “Lord’s Prayer” in which the phrase “On Earth as it is in Heaven” refers to God’s will being carried out both in Heaven and on Earth as he sees fit.
- The first Universal Studios film to have a collaboration with Legendary Pictures.
- Ben Feldman (George) actually suffers from minor claustrophobia. He had to keep taking breaks to cope with it.
- The nightclub Scarlett is in when she is looking for Papillon is a real nightclub in Paris, and DJ Axiom was actually performing a set during the filming of the scene.