Silver Screen: As Above, so Below ***1/2
I must admit, I was kind of hoping the new horror movie As Above, so Below would be terrible since I’d already stumbled upon the perfect pithy dismissal: As Above so Blows.
With a genuine gold-plated zinger like that, you can pretty much write your own ticket into the Movie Critic Hall of Fame, retire on the royalties, and buy one of the lesser private islands in the archipelago of second-tier Baldwins and first-tier Arquettes.
For the first half-hour the found-footage cheapie met every low expectation with its dull, exposition-heavy setup. Archaeologist Scarlett (British TV actress Perdita Weeks) is traveling the world to complete her father’s quest to find the legendary Philosopher’s Stone. In case her Indiana Jane exploits were too subtle, she even follows clues he recorded in an old journal that might as well have the words “Doctor Jones’s Grail Diary” crossed out on the leather cover. With the help of fellow archaeologist George (Mad Men’s excellent Ben Feldman), an old crush from the past, she decodes a secret message that leads her to believe the stone is buried somewhere in the catacombs beneath Paris. She recruits a team of local urban explorers to lead her through the caverns of bone to what she believes is a secret vault hiding untold riches and the proof that her father’s search was valid. Think of it as the Chamber of Daddy Issues.
But here’s the thing: Once Scarlett assembles her team— including guide Papillon (François Civil), his girlfriend Souxie (Marion Lambert), camera guy Benji (Edwin Hodge), and a reluctant George, whose brother just happened to drown in a cave years ago— they descend into the catacombs, and the movie starts gathering menace. The setting is perfectly spooky, exploited early during the journey in a spectacularly claustrophobic scene involving Benji, who bears the brunt of the movie’s abuse.
Once our crew is in the underground city of the dead, the requisite spooky occurrences begin. I say requisite because at times director John Erick Dowdle and his cowriter, brother Drew Dowdle, show a lack of imagination and start grabbing stock scares off the bottom shelf— vacant-eyed kids, chanting cult ladies, and the like. The catacombs setting imbues these with extra dread, but they’re tempered by familiarity. The Dowdle brothers find greater success following the movie’s more conceptual later twist, when they turn a great location into the mother of all horror-movie settings. Their low-key approach to the supernatural not only helps keep what must have been a miniscule budget down, but amps up the intensity of the later scenes when it gets a bit wilder— or sillier, depending on your perspective. It’s a commendable effort, even if director Dowdle does frustratingly add on forty-five superfluous seconds after what would have been a perfect closing shot.
Has anyone yet delivered a truly great performance in a found-footage movie? Perhaps Daniel Stamm in The Last Exorcism. But in general, the grungy subgenre tends to treat actors poorly, bleaching them in bright halogen light, catching them in unflattering closeups, and shaking their performances like an Etch-a-Sketch. As a consequence, the characters never really stand out, not in Blair Witch, Cloverfield, Paranormal Activity, Monsters, nor here. Feldman is at the very least a sharp character actor who keeps threatening to become compelling despite the limitations the movie places on him, while almost everyone else is reduced to cave-death fodder.
What it lacks in grandeur, As Above, so Below makes up for in moxie. It’s a nifty little horror movie that might have significantly benefited from a more conventional shooting style to capture the atmosphere, but Dowdle makes do with what he has and delivers the first good scary movie of 2014.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.