Mark Reviews Movies

As Above So Below


3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: John Erick Dowdle

Cast: Perdita Weeks, Ben Feldman, Edwin Hodge, François Civil, Marion Lambert, Ali Marhyar, Cosme Castro

MPAA Rating: R (for bloody violence/terror, and language throughout)

Running Time: 1:33

Release Date: 8/29/14

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Review by Mark Dujsik | August 29, 2014

It is an unspoken rule in horror movies that characters must continue toward the unknown, lurking danger no matter how much the audience wants them to stop. Of course, we don't really want them stop, and it's likely for the same reason that the characters keep moving forward to their inevitably doom. The unknown is terrifying, but if we know what we're facing, perhaps we can come to grips with whatever the thing hiding in the shadows is. That's why a lot of horror movies that falter do so: They get the mystery right, but the reveal eliminates the quality that made them frightening in the first place.

As Above So Below isn't really a horror film until its third act. There are hints here and there that something diabolical is around this corner, but the film has the patience to hold back the devilish forces at work until the characters round that corner, way over there. Until then, it is scary in far more natural ways and, at the same time, builds a mythology that gradually prepares us for the literal venture into Hell that makes up its supernatural finale. If anything, co-writer/director John Erick Dowdle's film is effective as an exercise in gradation, although there is a bit more to the film than just that.

Even when the nature of the threat against a ragtag group of archeologists is revealed during that extended climax, there is still plenty of mystery. The screenplay by Dowdle and his brother Drew doesn't hold our hand. It expects us to work out the devious machinations on display, and even then, we're going to come up a little short. What happens is still scary because we can't quite fully comprehend what's happening. We have the gist of it, and yes, we want the characters to keep moving forward, hoping that they—and we—might be able to understand what they—and we—are confronting.

The plot revolves around a legendary MacGuffin. Scarlett (Perdita Weeks) is the daughter of the man who was the foremost scholar on alchemy (Yes, we're allowed a little disbelieving/contempt-filled chuckle at the silliness of that statement when it arises). Since his suicide some years ago, she has taken over that title, and the film opens with a teasing prologue in a cave in Iran, where Scarlett is searching for a statue that holds the key to uncovering the location of the philosopher's stone. One might recall that the stone of legend can turn ordinary metal to gold, have curative effects, and create an elixir that results in immortality.

We think we know where the prologue is heading: a dark cave with plenty of shadows, a ticking clock before the ancient place is destroyed, a scared but helpful guide, and the conceit watching the heroine's footage of her quest. Something is going to pop out at her—and us—before this is finished.

Observe the restraint, though. The sequence ends in a cacophony but not of some monster or demonic creatures. The only hint that something is amiss is the disturbing image of a hanged man that disappears just as we're processing it.

The clues on the statue lead Scarlett to Paris, where she reunites with George (Ben Feldman), a volunteer repairer of landmarks and an expert in Aramaic, and seeks out the aid of Papillon (François Civil), a local explorer. Along for the hunt are Benji (Edwin Hodge), a documentarian, and Zed (Ali Marhyar) and Souxie (Marion Lambert), members of Papillon's team.

The rest of the film is set in the winding, dank, and treacherous Catacombs of Paris. Dowdle knows that one of the primary rules of an effective horror movie is the same as the principal rule of real estate: location. Shot mostly on location within that historic site, most of the action involves the characters exploring the flooded corridors, shrinking ceilings, boarded-up pits, blocked archways, and the seemingly endless supply culs-de-sac. Since the Dowdles frame their story as a fake documentary, a majority of the shots come from cameras attached to the characters' headlamps, and if the inherent constriction of the locale isn't enough, the technique only amplifies the sense of claustrophobia.

Take a harrowing sequence in which the team must climb through a narrow passage—over bones and avoiding, as one character mentions at the last second, rats—in order to avoid a route that Papillon insists is "evil." One character (who has enough bad luck for all of his colleagues) becomes stuck, and Dowdle does not cut away from the camera in front of the character. The scene holds on him as he helplessly struggles, growing more and more panicked (The chanting of some enigmatic cult in an alcove behind him doesn't help matters). The tension in that one, elongated moment is so effective that it carries through the rest of these adventures. There's a genuine sense of danger at every turn—at every uncovering of some new, unexplored path.

Throughout the second act, there are hints of what will come in climax—a vision or two here, a piano or telephone that doesn't belong there. If the film's final act—with actors in dress-up popping out of shadows and suggestions of some new terror around each corner—is akin to experience of a haunted house, it's at least a fine example of one. It's not only the scares but also a representation of the characters' psychological traumas that the Dowdles are after with the extended sequence. The concept is intriguing enough, and the sometimes abstract way that Dowdle portrays it helps. On a more basic level, though, As Above So Below earns its trek into the supernatural realm by creating a sense of dread for the natural one.

Copyright © 2014 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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