Scarlett Marlowe (Perdita Weeks) is an archaeologist on a dual-purposed mission. She’s searching for the long-fabled Philosopher’s Stone, an archaic relic capable of transmuting metals into gold and granting immortality, but she’s also hoping to prove her father’s theories right in order to clear his name tarnished by a descent into supposed madness that ended in suicide. A breakthrough discovery in Iran leads her to Paris where she comes to believe the stone is buried somewhere in or beneath the city’s legendary catacombs. She’s joined by a documentary filmmaker, a wandering clock mechanic who reads Aramaic and a trio of local urban spelunkers, and together they descend into the world’s largest cemetery.
They face the expected difficulties at first including tight spaces, rats and a creepy coven of topless hippies, but as they move deeper into the earth the obstacles become far more dangerous and mysterious. Shadowy figures and the caverns’ shifting geography are just precursors to the true nightmare that haunts each of them.
As Above/So Below is yet another in a seemingly never-ending line of found footage-like horror films, but while it falls victim to many of the format’s numerous pitfalls it stands slightly apart from the crowd thanks to its performances and setting. Unfortunately, neither of those pluses can help the film’s utter lack of scares.
Too many found footage films are content populating the screen with unknowns, perhaps in an effort to enhance the “believability” of the experience, but the quality of onscreen talent here is fully one half of the film’s (albeit) moderate success. Weeks is attractive, yes, but it’s her spunk and the twinkle in her eye that makes Scarlett a compelling character and one you could easily see yourself following into a hole in the ground. Ben Feldman (Mad Men) plays the Aramaic-speaking tinkerer, an ex-lover burned by her drive and ambition in the past, and he brings humanity and a voice of reason to the proceedings. Edwin Hodge (The Purge) is the documentarian — his camera is the primary, but three of the characters have mini-cams installed in their head-lamps — and he gives a solid performance as well. The three French urban explorers are equally competent in somewhat smaller roles.
The actors actually go above and beyond what the characters demand of them as, with the exception of Scarlett, we actually know next to nothing about any of them. There’s nothing in the way of depth or persona. Obviously that’s rarely a priority in horror, but it becomes more of an issue here when we’re asked to care about “sins” in their past — sins that now are coming back to haunt them — that we’re made privy to mere moments before (or sometimes well after) some group hallucination has crossed their paths. We’re rarely given a detailed story either as it’s mostly a line or two of dialogue and an implication.
Worse, the problem of past guilt isn’t universally applied across the spelunkers making it seem like a last-minute addition in order to spice up some of the death (and near-death) scenes. That same sloppiness affects much in the second half as the film just starts throwing all manner of stock “scares” into the tombs, from crazy guys and dead knights to demonic monks and stone faces that come to life. There’s no logic to any of it, and while the script goes out of its way to incorporate real history into the background its application here leaves everything to be desired.
This is writer/director John Erick Dowdle‘s fourth horror film since 2007 — although technically The Poughkeepsie Tapes didn’t see a release until earlier this year — and three of the four are found footage-type features. The exception, Devil, is not only his best film (it’s good!) but also the only one he didn’t write. I’m sure both of those factors are purely coincidence.
I kid the man (and his co-writer brother, Drew Dowdle), but seriously. Found footage is doing him no favors (aside from an apparent steady stream of directing gigs anyway).
The film’s numerous issues and sad lack of scares are especially frustrating as the damn thing looks great (when the camera is rapidly jerking back and forth as someone runs). The biggest reason for that is the locale — the actual Parisian catacombs. This is reportedly the first film production to be granted access to the off-limits areas of the underground, and Dowdle and his actors (the de facto cameramen/woman) take great advantage of it. The tunnels are nightmare-inducing works of stone and bone guaranteed to trigger labored breathing and the sweats as the characters are forced into cramped locales and unlit areas. The first two thirds feel more than a little repetitive — walk, climb down, scare, walk, climb down, scare — but the subterranean architecture keeps the eyes interested and engaged even as the minds are wanting to check out.
As Above/So Below is ultimately a bit lower than a middle of the road horror pic with its biggest issues being an unfocused script and a severe lack of scares. On the bright side at least it’s more watchable than ninety percent of found footage films thanks to a capable cast and a successfully claustrophobic visual appeal.
The Upside: Perdita Weeks; some intensely claustrophobic moments; production design via filming in the actual catacombs; very cool image/idea in final scene
The Downside: First two acts are highly redundant; script is incredibly messy in regard to what exactly is happening; typical found footage shenanigans; get a head-lamp camera if you want to live; direct translations are not going to rhyme
On the Side: The Dowdle brothers’ next film, The Coup, is an action thriller starring Pierce Brosnan, Owen Wilson and Lake Bell. It most likely will not be a found footage film.