Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #328
Number of Views: One
Release Date: August 29, 2014
Sub-Genre: Found Footage
Country of Origin: United States
Box Office: $40,200,000
Running Time: 93 minutes
Director: John Erick Dowdle
Producers: Patrick Aiello, Alec Hedlund
Screenplay: Drew Dowdle, John Erick Dowdle
Special Effects: Philippe Hubin
Visual Effects: Jamie Dixon
Cinematography: Léo Hinstin
Score: Max Richter
Editing: Elliot Greenberg
Studios: Legendary Pictures
Distributor: Universal Pictures
Stars: Perdita Weeks, Ben Feldman, Edwin Hodge, François Civil, Marion Lambert, Ali Marhyar, Cosme Castro, Hamid Djavadan, Théo Cholbi, Emy Lévy, Roger Van Hool
Suggested Audio Candy:
La Femme Sur La Plance
Do you feel dizzy, nauseated, and bewildered? Then chances are that you’re at the tail-end of a Paranormal Activity marathon. Either that or the big dipper is drawing to a close. Either way, I’ll grab you a vomit bag. I’ve lost count of the amount of times I’ve griped of the former; found footage is fast becoming my Kryptonite but my floundering faith in the shaky-cam technique has recently been offered a boost after The Taking of Deborah Logan showed the correct way to tackle mockumentary. It did so through ignoring the sign-posted jumps and jolts of its contemporaries and instead worked on steady-building suspense and a palpable sense of dread. As much as I came away from Adam Robitel‘s film markedly impressed, I was also aware that it wouldn’t be long before another pretender to the POV-throne emerged and the moment As Above, So Below came along my eyes began to glaze over once more.
I was so focused on the As Above part that I forgot all about the So Below half of the deal. As Above it’s a tale of alchemy graduate Scarlett (Perdita Weeks), daughter of a deceased archaeologist hell-bent on finishing her father’s work and locating the mystical Philosopher’s Stone. The stone in question can turn a dumpster full of brass into a golden chariot and also grants eternal life, making it quite the catch for an inquisitive adventurer so as she. Unfortunately, in order to grasp this artifact she will be required to investigate the So Below side of the deal and, in particular, les Catacombes de Paris. The film procrastinates not in placing its audience and Scarlett in mortal peril within the opening five minutes and that’s the first clue that we may yet be in safe hands.
Speaking of which, director John Erick Dowdle and his brother Drew who shares screenwriting duties here, are already fairly entrenched in horror fan’s minds. The Poughkeepsie Tapes, Quarantine, and Devil have already established them as players and there’s more than enough evidence there alone that their urban spelunking expedition will resonate more than Tomm Coker and David Elliot’s underwhelming Catacombs from 2007. Here comes the kicker, and a considerable one it is too. As Above, So Below is the first ever feature to secure permission from the French government to film there exclusively. This means that every winding passageway, crumbling recess, murky crawl space and, most critically, skeletal remain is entirely authentic. No set, just the kind of place no person in their right mind would wish to spleunk within. It’s a tremendous selling point.
Scarlett recruits her cameraman Benji (Edwin Hodge), reluctant fellow historian and translator George (Ben Feldman) and a host of enterprising local guides and together they head down into the depths to pinpoint the elusive gemstone so Scarlett can prove to Indiana Jones that sisters are doing it for themselves. Dowdle’s film wastes no time in taking us subterranean and the further the group explore, the more it appears that they may well be on a direct course for the bowels of hell themselves. However, it doesn’t bolt the gate and instead takes a leaf out of Neil Marshall‘s book by making the precarious environment their primary concern, before hell’s minions are even awakened. Just like The Descent, this bodes well for tension as every step deeper into the catacombs reveals a fresh dilemma and poor Benji in particular bears the brunt of it. After snagging his child-bearing hips in a thousand-year old bone eiderdown whilst attempting to traverse one concealed entranceway, he comes a cropper rappelling down a well also. If I were trapped there, I’d stay as far away from clusterfuck Benji as humanly possible.
Once they’ve descended sufficiently things take on an altogether less heartening shape. All entrances become sealed forcing them deeper into the mouth of madness and Dowdle resists throwing all manner of belly crawling flesh stealers into the mix, instead continuing to steadily ratchet the tension. Antiquated phones chime from hundreds of feet beneath terra firma and dusty childhood pianos sit in small clearings acting as a reminder for the team of numerous skeletons in their own closets. It fast becomes apparent that they all have their personal demons and, moreover, the catacombs are aware of their past indiscretions and know exactly how to punish them for each. Down is the only available route and each floor offers another reason not to push on, placing them one step closer to the fiery pits of hell.
While Dowdle uses the found footage route to tell his story, and shaky camera work is abundant, it feels only right considering this isn’t a film set and instead the actual crypts of the ancients. Through adopting this approach he appeals to our claustrophobia perfectly, leaving us confined and none the wiser than Scarlett and her adventuring friends as the insular confines continue to close in around us. Shrouded brotherhood in blackened hoods bathed in dark shadows and blood-filled trenches complete with grabbing hands make up the sub-levels and the orange glow of hell is ever more present. Dowdle keeps a handle on things admirably and refuses to slacken the reins on our fraying senses as we make our way to the basement.
The ending may separate audiences somewhat but the fact remains that the 93 minute expedition is never less than constrictive throughout. Pacing issues are so often a bone of contention with films of its ilk but this is simply never the case with As Above, So Below. The entire film is saturated in dread and, at no point, does it feel as though our protagonists are making headway. The concept is sound and there’s a disquieting symmetry to each sub-level which helps alleviate us of our fast-depleting oxygen. In this respect, Dowdle’s film is a resounding success and effortlessly perches in the upper echelons of the found footage ranks. With striking imagery, burgeoning consternation, and solid performances across the board, it is well worth the expedition.
Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 8/10
Dread Factor: 4/5
For the Dread-Heads: If being confined in narrow passageways bothers you then I would recommend watching The Sound of Music instead. Julie Andrews would struggle to belt out a chipper anthem with these acoustics as any remaining oxygen is steadily sucked away. Our imaginations elicit the greatest scares as Dowdle masterfully refrains from exposing too much. For a found footage movie not to threaten outstaying its welcome is quite something in Keeper’s book. Watch late with blinds drawn, company excluded, and volume cranked for maximum remuneration.
Keeper of the Crimson Quill
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