Ali Marhyar, archaeologists, As Above So Below, Ben Feldman, catacombs, childhood trauma, cinema, co-writers, Cosme Castro, Dante's Inferno, dead father, disappointing films, Drew Dowdle, Edwin Hodge, film reviews, films, Flamel, found-footage films, François Civil, Hamid Djavadan, horror, horror films, John Erick Dowdle, Leo Hinstin, Marion Lambert, Movies, multiple writers, ossuaries, Perdita Weeks, Philosopher's Stone, Roger Van Hool, set in Paris, suicide, The Descent, trapped underground, visions, writer-director
Let’s get one thing out of the way right off the bat, shall we? John Erick Dowdle’s As Above, So Below (2014) is not a good film. It has many of the elements of a good film, such as a killer location, some genuinely effective scenes and some thought-provoking ideas but this does nothing to change the final outcome: it just isn’t very good. In the same way that both a good and bad meal may contain identical ingredients, writer-director Dowdle’s movie has all of the necessary pieces, yet the end result is a tedious, dull, overtly silly and largely disposable bit of cineplex fluff. Upon finishing the film, I really only had one question, similar to the question I had after finishing Escape From Tomorrow (2013): how, exactly, did this potential souffle turn into mush? Take my hand as we descend into the darkness and let’s see if we can’t figure that out, shall we?
In the interest of fairness, let’s start with the elements that actually work. First, and most obviously, AASB has an absolutely unbeatable location: the legendary catacombs and ossuaries that lie beneath the streets of Paris. To this point, no other filmmaker has really shot down there (at least that I’m aware of), making the ancient site something of an undiscovered territory. Without putting too fine a point on it, the catacombs are absolutely astounding. Not “cool CGI, bro” astounding, mind you, but honest-to-god “your mind has just been blown” astounding. If there is any real reason to sit through AASB (and there are a couple, mind you), the location is absolutely Reason #1, with a bullet. In fact, the only thing that dings the location aspect is that it isn’t utilized enough: too often, the filmmakers resort to substandard chills in obviously fabricated locations when all they had to do was point at the real site and let our goose-flesh do the heavy lifting. If you have any interest in urban exploration (which I most certainly do), this aspect, alone, might make AASB worth a look.
Secondly, certain elements of the storyline work extremely well. While the film often resembles a confusing hodge-podge of Dan Brown-esque historical adventuring and sub-standard found-footage tropes, the central narrative is just intriguing enough (most of the time) to carry the audience through some extremely choppy waters. Extra points for the myriad references and connections to Dante’s Inferno, a classical work of genre fiction that is relatively untapped in these modern times. While the film, ostensibly, revolves around Scarlett (Perdita Weeks) searching for Flamel’s legendary Philosopher’s Stone, it’s mostly an excuse to dump the cast (almost literally) right into the Inferno. When Dowdle and company focus on the Dante aspect (the “abandon hope” bit is particularly well done), AASB is not only interesting but fairly unique: the gold beneath the mud, so to speak.
Thirdly, AASB contains a handful of highly effective scenes/scares, some of which end up being quite memorable. There’s a scene involving a mysteriously ringing telephone that comes perilously close to becoming a minor classic and the visual of the burning car is actually pretty damn cool. The film’s conclusion, which I won’t spoil here (although I will bet money that you’ll figure it out before Dowdle elects to reveal it), is also pretty neat looking. One of my favorite bits in the film, however, has to be the scene where Scarlett figures out that the group needs to keeping heading down: the bit where she bashes a hole in the floor, allowing water to flood into the unseen space below them, is appropriately Lovecraftian and reminded me (favorably) of the scene in Mann’s The Keep (1983) where the soldiers break through into the “abyss.” There’s an appropriate sense of space to many of the film’s underground scenes that makes the film simultaneously claustrophobic and impossibly large: it’s a great trick and definitely one of AASB’s hidden aces.
And there you have it, folks: the positives, benefits and virtues that can be found in As Above, So Below. Now that that’s out of the way, let’s take a look at the rest, shall we? Spoiler alert: it ain’t pretty.
Right off the bat, Dowdle’s film is populated with some of the most obnoxious, tedious, hateful and just plain awful characters I’ve ever had the misfortune of “knowing.” Familiar with the term “cannon fodder?” Dowdle and co-writer Drew (his brother) sure are, since there isn’t a single person in the film worth saving. The chief offenders, of course, are Weeks’ Scarlett and Ben Feldman’s (of Mad Men fame) George. Taken separately, the characters are whiny, obnoxious, nonsensical and prone to some exceptionally rash, stupid decisions. When put together, however, the pair form the Voltron of Awfulness: they’re like a black hole that sucks anything good straight into the cold reaches of the cosmos, never to be seen again. Even worse, they’re both essentially the same character: in fact, their personalities are so interchangeable that I began to refer to them as “female George” and “male Scarlett” in my notes.
The combined wretchedness of Weeks and Feldman’s performances should not take away from the rest of the cast, however: no one makes out like a bandit in this. At best, as with the case of Edwin Hodge’s Benji, the characters (and performances) are clichéd, rote and highly predictable. At worst, as with Cosme Castro’s ludicrous La Taupe or Francois Civil’s blustery Papillon, the characters take us right out of the action (such as it is), reminding us that we’re watching a bunch of actors tromp around in darkly lit tunnels for upwards of 90 minutes. I can honestly say that I never found a character I could root for: even by the film’s rather upbeat conclusion, I was hoping a sudden earthquake would swallow the idiots and send ’em straight back to the Devil’s living room.
To further add insult to injury, the camerawork is genuinely nauseating, as if someone took a look at the seasick camera motions of progenitors The Blair Witch Project (1999) and Cloverfield (2008) and said: “I can make it even shakier.” When the film is action-packed, the camera shakes. When the film is quiet, the camera shakes. When the group is stressed: shakes. When they’re relaxed: shakes. By the time the whole damned thing was through, the only thing I wanted was some Dramamine and a flat space of carpet to lie down on. This shaky camera issue becomes even more pronounced, if possible, during the film’s handful of action sequences, such as the stone monster attack scene. While I have a tendency to hate overly kinetic action films like The Bourne Identity (2002), AASB made that film feel like it was shot in slo-mo. It’s so hard to figure out what’s going on in any of the chaotic scenes that I eventually just stopped trying.
The film also constantly recalls better films, such as The Descent (2005), by virtue of ripping them off. The scene where Benji gets stuck in the tunnel should be familiar, as are any of the ones where the group realize they’re going in circles (pick your reference for that one). The character of George, who makes a hobby of breaking into places and fixing things (I shit you not), feels like he’s from at least four different films, while Scarlett’s driven, whiny and high-strung group leader might be more familiar to folks when she was Heather, the doomed director from Blair Witch. Time after time, AASB seems to parallel other films, both consciously and unconsciously: it’s like a long, sustained case of deja vu. Hell, there’s even a nod to the infamous “closet vortex” scene from Poltergeist (1982) when Papillon gets pulled into the car, although the CGI utilized here makes the ’80s film look like Avatar (2009), by comparison.
Not to be overly mean, here, but I have to say it: one of the film’s biggest issues is that it wildly vacillates between “reasonably intelligent” and “gap-mouthed drooling,” often within the same sequence. Take, for example, the sequence where Scarlett realizes that she had the wrong stone and needs to go back to get the correct one. The scene is staged and executed exactly like a video game, with Scarlett running, jumping, climbing and punching rock monsters like she’s trying to earn experience points. It reaches its loony apex when she stumbles across the specter of her deceased father: stopping just long enough to hug him and apologize for “not being there,” Scarlett takes off as he fades away. It’s almost as if Dowdle thought: Hmm…I could take the time to give this an extra beat or two, for emotional resonance…or I could just get back to running and jumping.
This lack of reason ends up infecting just about every area of the film: characters act in inconsistent, dumb ways; various elements are introduced, only to be summarily dropped almost instantly (try as I might, I can figure out no good reason for either the ageless Knight Templar or the cowled, “scary face” guy that the group bump into); and there’s no rhyme or reason to the whole Philosopher’s Stone thing: it ends up being the worst kind of McGuffin, since it’s proved to be largely unnecessary (from what I can tell).
And, finally, the film just isn’t scary, despite being billed as a horror film. There are about five legitimate jump scares in the film, one of which (the figure appearing behind Benji) is so moldy that you might need a breathing mask. The others range from good (the phone) to inane (the cloaked guy), although the film gets the most mileage out of my absolute least favorite genre trope: the past coming back to haunt characters. If I’ve seen this once, I’ve seen it a thousand times and it’s just never effective: every character in here sees their dead brother/father/child/lover so many times that it just becomes tedious. Similar to the way in which so many films fall back on the hoary old “possession” cliché, using “past trauma” as a scare factor is really just a way for the filmmakers to admit there’s nothing under the hood: rather than take the time to come up with any genuinely unique, frightening visions, we just get the standard “dead dad/brother under water/person in a burning car” shit. If we actually got to know and like the characters, perhaps these would bear weight. As it was, however, it just made me hate the characters AND their dead relatives that much more.
Here’s the thing: perhaps I sound so bitter over Dowdle’s film because it had such potential to be a real winner. A found-footage film set in the Paris catacombs? Friends and neighbors, that pitch practically prints money, at least for a jaded horror-hound like me. In the end, however, I probably should’ve listened to my gut: after slogging through Dowdle’s previous films, Quarantine (2008) (a direct remake of the Spanish [REC] (2007)) and Devil (2010), I should have figured this wouldn’t be smooth sailing. While critics seemed to have enjoyed Devil and audiences liked Quarantine enough to warrant a sequel, I must admit to disliking them both pretty evenly: if nothing else, Dowdle seems to be a remarkably consistent filmmaker, which surely counts for something. With irritating characters, a squandered setting and enough ludicrous moments to insure that the palm-mark never left my face, As Above, So Below is one of the most disappointing films I’ve seen in some time. Some day, a filmmaker will make a genuinely interesting film about the catacombs. This isn’t it, of course, not by a long shot. For the time being, however, it is, quite literally, the best we have.