AUGUST 31, 2014
As a big fan of the underrated Devil, I was excited to see a new film from the Dowdle brothers, despite the fact that it was a POV "found footage" movie, a sub-genre (of sorts) of which I've grown quite tired of seeing. But even the promise of someone saying "Keep filming!" for the millionth time couldn't deflate my enthusiasm for As Above, So Below based on its plot, which seemed to be a blend of The Descent's claustrophobic "we're trapped underground!" terror and the psychological torment of Flatliners, with our heroes being inexplicably haunted by things from their past as they try to find their way back to the surface. I always wanted more Descent-type movies, and the French Catacombs deserve better than Catacombs, so... favorite horror movie of the year, right?
Sadly, no. It's fine, and I'd even watch it again someday (and would love a commentary, as they really filmed inside the 'combs, unlike the other film which was mostly shot on stages in Bulgaria), but the Dowdles (or their producers) bungled a couple of things that kept it from ever really popping, resulting in one of those movies where I'm actively questioning the choices that they are making. It's one thing to question a plot point or some poor writing on the drive home - but when it happens during the viewing, when you should be completely engulfed in its situation, the movie clearly needs some fixing.
At the risk of sounding ADD, part of the problem is that it's too long. 104 minutes is above average for any horror movie, let alone one with the found footage gimmick (Blair Witch is barely over 80), and they could have shaved 10 minutes off by simply reducing the number of times the characters find themselves seemingly trapped until a hole in the ground is discovered, forcing them to descend even deeper with the hopes that this new path would lead to a place where they could finally start to make their way back up again. None of us have ever been there, so it's not like we'd realize that they had jumped into a new tunnel all of a sudden (as a result of just chopping out one of these sections entirely), and even if we DID know the layout, the low lighting and shaky camera (though not as bad as some others) would likely help obscure such a transition anyway. There's no variety of note to these plot points, so it actually starts to border on ridiculous - we keep seeing them go down but never up, and while that could be fun (there's some discussion that they're actually descending into Hell itself), the movie doesn't really dive deep enough into such a scenario to justify all the repetition we endure to get there.
After the movie I tweeted the following sentiment (paraphrasing myself! Fun!), that if the Dowdles had used 10 minutes of the screentime devoted to this stuff and applied it to character and story, it would have been a minor classic. They definitely have enough of the Descent-y, claustrophobic nightmare maze thing (the movie's highlight, easily, is one character's panic attack when "trapped" in a tight tunnel), but not nearly enough of the "Flatliners stuff", for lack of a better term. Early on, the male hero discovers a piano that belonged to his family when he was a child, something that would obviously not be located inside of the catacombs, and their tour guide sees his personal graffiti tag in a tunnel he's never entered. But then this sort of stuff is only given intermittent screentime for the rest of the movie; there's definitely a "Past sins coming back to haunt us" element at play, but the Dowdles treat it as an afterthought. One of the characters has a burned hand, and you would expect him to explain it BEFORE his inevitable death, but no - by the time he sees the burning car with his friend (brother? lover? who knows?) inside, and gets sucked into it (not a spoiler, it's the highlight of the trailer), his burned hand had long been forgotten. Had he sat down and confessed his secret (apparently, he left someone to die in a burning car, escaping with a minor burn on his hand) at any point before, this scene would be much more harrowing - there's a setup and a punchline, but no meat to the tale to make it stick. And another character doesn't even really GET the past sins thing - he just sort of awkwardly confesses an illegitimate child near the very end (after the other surviving characters have figured out what's happening and aired their dirty laundry), and it seems more like a last minute addition to explain some random jump scares earlier than a genuine plot point.
But the Dowdles have proven themselves in the past, so I have to assume that this obviously long movie was trimmed of its slower moments (i.e. the parts where characters would talk) in an attempt to make it more exciting, Dimension style. There's no way I can believe that they'd be fully satisfied with say, the character of Mole, who has one of the more interesting backstories (he's been down there for years, having gotten lost/presumed dead on a previous expedition) but completely disappears from the narrative after committing a murder out of nowhere. There's also some stuff with a cult that just gets dropped, and again a major event involves a character whose connection to our protagonist isn't even clear (and the tragedy is too similar to the male lead's own sob story). Someone, Ryan Turek I think, said that this stuff feels kind of Fulci-esque, but was it that way by design? I'm all for weirdness and confusing plot points, but this doesn't seem like the kind of movie that would embrace such storytelling - and with the ending bordering on happy, it doesn't fit the mood anyway. If they wanted to honor Fulci's storytelling, what you THINK is happening at the end when they push down that manhole would be exactly what happens - not what actually does. It's like the movie WANTS to get weird and ambitious but keeps holding back, rendering it kind of flat as a whole.
That all said, it's got its merits. The aforementioned panic attack scene is terrific, and while it causes some confusion (since everyone has a camera on their helmet) the POV aspect is better implemented than many of its studio brethren (cough, Devil's Due, cough), though that shouldn't be a surprise since this is the Dowdles' third film to use it (after Quarantine and the faux doc Poughkeepsie Tapes). But my favorite thing about it was how it also sort of functioned as a National Treasure/Indiana Jones type adventure, with our heroes deciphering riddles and encountering traps on their way to find the famed Philosopher's Stone*, giving it an extra bit of excitement and identifying our leads as smart folks. They even think things through; there's one riddle where they have to pull out a stone that corresponds to the order of planets, and in a dumb movie they'd just base it on the 9 planets we learned in grade school (yes, counting Pluto), but someone recalls that at the time the riddle was devised they didn't know about Neptune or Pluto. And then they start to count on that, but then they recall that this was before Copernicus, and thus the order was based thinking that Earth was the center and the moon was a planet. It's that extra bit of smarts that make these scenes work better than they have any right to. I also had to laugh; around the end of act 2 they come across a new message that needs to be deciphered - throughout the movie everything has been more or less a riddle that (I assume) was made up for the movie, but for whatever reason I mentally joked that this one just said "Abandon hope, all ye who enter here", which is a standard horror movie reveal - but then they translate it, and THAT'S EXACTLY WHAT IT WAS! I was floored.
The characters are pretty likable too, another plus. The guide guy is established as a sort of dick, but they do away with this element quickly as he is just as terrified as the rest of them and they experience the same sort of things. So when they see his tag on a wall in a room he says he's never been to before, and they think he's fucking with him, it's not long before they're seeing their own impossible things and realize he wasn't lying. It's nice to see a modern horror movie with 5-6 protagonists that all like each other and work as a group (standard occasional bickering aside). Just a shame that some of them never get any real development and the movie has them repeating the same actions so many times that we start to get sick of looking at them - I wasn't hoping that someone would die because he/she was a terrible person, I just wanted a death to force the movie to change gears a bit! Still, it gets as many things right as it does wrong, which is enough to put it near the top of the quality list for what has been a pretty underwhelming year for wide release fright fare (it's pretty sad that this and Oculus, neither of which left me fully satisfied, are the best of the lot). Hurrah for being better than bad!
What say you?
*I couldn't help but wonder, do they change it to "Sorcerer's Stone" in the UK to even things out with Harry Potter?