As Above/So Below Review

I’ve seen worse found footage horror movies than As Above/So Below, but I’ve also been in haunted houses created by ten year olds for Halloween parties that are scarier than this. Visually and thematically unspectacular and lacking in any real scares, I can’t even say it’s an ambitious enough failure to have kept my interest. A half-assed mash-up of The Blair Witch Project and the National Treasure movies, this unconscionably dull experience did nothing more than make me tap my pen against my leg repeatedly as I rhythmically counted the seconds until I could leave, go home, and write this review that I’m not even all that invested in writing because the film has almost nothing worth remarking about.

Trying to take up where her father’s research left off, British archaeologist Scarlett Marlowe has been searching the caves and caverns of the world in search of the mythical Philosopher’s Stone, a relic that is capable of great and powerful bits of hokum and is possibly the key to eternal life. Her search leads her to believe that the stone is housed deep within the tunnels, passageways, and steep drop-offs within the Parisian catacombs, a spooky, creepy place where over six million bodies had been buried. Along with a documentarian (Edwin Hodge, also the token black guy), a Aramaic reading American ex-pat worrywart (Ben Feldman), and a crew of locals who know their way around the intricate underground paths, Scarlett begins the final leg of her quest before realizing that she might have found more than just a priceless artifact and the secret behind her dad’s madness. She probably also just found the gateway to hell.

Within seconds of the film starting I was bored out of my skull and wishing I could replace mine with one of the decaying, rotting ones glimpsed throughout the catacombs. Director and co-writer John Erick Dowdle certainly knows his way around the shaky-cam horror genre.  He co-wrote this one with his brother Drew, both of whom are responsible for the American [REC] reboot Quarantine and the rightfully and eternally shelved The Poughkeepsie Tapes. This time, he seems even more lost than his previous suspect efforts. When there’s an action sequence, everything takes place in such a blurry fashion and with false video feeds dropping out that I couldn’t tell who was getting killed, let alone what was causing it. It might be one of the more nauseating films to sit through in terms of how much the camera can’t stop moving, but that might be the only real accomplishment here.

The catacombs are a scary enough place on their own, and yet the Dowdles have this hopelessly misguided desire to make their film sound smarter than it is. They talk at length about mythology, magic, historical rituals, and at one point while trying to solve one of the many riddles someone actually – without a shred of irony and with an overwhelming sense of urgency – screams, “QUICK! WAS THIS BEFORE OR AFTER COPERNICUS?!?” Maybe a film that also doesn’t feature the same group of people literally walking by a coven of naked witches and not even getting freaked out or really remarking upon it for more than a second could have convinced me these people weren’t idiots. They’re also the kinds of people who are either unaware that everything they say and do is completely contradictory from the previous choices they made or they’re just too self-serving to work as part of a group. Either way, they’re terrible, unsympathetic bores to be around.

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As Above So Below

None of these people are characters and the actors only have to appear moderately spooked, occasionally exhausted, always stressed, and in some cases, dead. That’s all that’s required of them. That and that they each have one irrational fear from their past that they keep hidden away to be exploited in the final act so whatever negative energy the catacombs thrive on can get to them on a psychological level. These are the kinds of character who talk like doctors, yet are so dunderheaded that I’m amazed they can dress themselves.

Dowdle can’t even get his atmosphere right. Everyone has head lamps so things will be well lit (and shot from every angle since their helmets have cameras, negating the need for a designated cameraman in the first place), but it’s also too dark to see anything. Instead of playing off how caves and claustrophobic landmarks can be creepy places (something that films like The Ruins or The Descent did well), Dowdle decides to literally turn a historical landmark into a goofy funhouse filled with mysterious graffiti, a dusty, out of tune piano, random creepy ghosts, a ringing telephone on a table, a long though dead guy acting nutty, a shitload of hidden treasure, and random rivers of blood. Nothing about this project can leave well enough alone because there’s no way to get any tension from the story or these characters. There’s nothing psychologically interesting about the setting. It’s all cheap.

That cheapness extends to the asinine jump scares, almost all of which come in rapid succession once the final act hits and the movie finally seems bored enough to take things home. Once the bodies start dropping (literally for one unlucky victim) I couldn’t even muster a shudder. Exactly everything one expects to happen in one of these films happens at the exact, perfectly timed second that it’s supposed to. There’s zero spontaneity. I only grew relieved because the more these characters that I never cared about in the first place got bumped off, I knew it was just that much closer to the credits hitting.

Nothing about As Above/So Below works. It’s a film that might as well have been created by a computer program set to “found footage” that was left to its own devices and given some cameras and a cast to let it all play out. It’s never fun for a second, and the bizarrely upbeat conclusion doesn’t make an iota of logical sense. It might as well end with all of the survivors laughing and high fiving and the credits rolling over a freeze frame of them. But that would actually be funny, and even following that scene there’s still another pointlessly redundant scene after that moment and before the credits that adds nothing expect to prolong the agony.

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In short, I wish it was worse so I could actually care.

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