“When I was a kid we had a piano that looked exactly like this. Danny and I used to play all the time. We only knew one song, ‘My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean’. You remember that song?
We could never finish it, ’cause the A4 key was fucked up.”
Deep underground in the Parisian catacombs, near where dozens of homes once fell from the street above, George (Ben Feldman) finds a piano and tries to play the song from his childhood. But just as he remembers, there’s a broken key that prevents what had been a lovely melody from completing. Today’s Killtoberfest 3 movie and the first in my found footage sounder, 2014’s As Above, So Below is a lot like that song–it starts off well, but eventually it loses the melody and never quite regains. There’s a lot to like here, so my chief takeaway is disappointment at what might have been.
Writer/director John E. Dowdle has been on my list of filmmakers to watch for quite some time now. He’s responsible for one of my favorite found footage movies, The Poughkeepsie Tapes, and made watching the M. Night Shyamalan-produced Devil just a little more fun than it had any right to be. He has style, which is good, and a strong command of tone, which is better, especially in the horror genre. Best of all, Dowdle has ideas, and God knows I’ve seen enough horror films to know that ideas are a precious commodity. As Above, So Below is refreshingly brimming with concepts and clever little bits of staging or structure or production design, and that helps to make it a better than average movie, especially in the first hour or so.
As a prime example, the movie doesn’t really start off as a horror film at all; instead, it’s an adventure tale, in the globe-trotting, puzzle-solving, artifact-seeking mode of Indiana Jones, National Treasure, and (especially) the Uncharted games. (AASB is almost exactly what you’d want out of an Uncharted movie, if you ignore that it has no gunfights.) The story concerns the intrepid, well-educated Scarlett (Perdita Weeks, who seems familiar even though I’ve never seen her in anything–with any luck she’s got a bright future). Scarlett is out to finish her late father’s quest by discovering the secret hiding place of alchemist Nicolas Flamel’s mythical philosopher’s stone, which any student of history knows is said to hold the secret to immortality, to turning base metals into gold, and to defeating Lord Voldemort. Not only is this portion of the film compelling in its own right (to the point where I almost didn’t want the movie to take a horror turn), but it immediately sets AASB apart from other found footage horror films, simply by virtue of having scary shit happen in the middle of a narrative already in progress, as opposed to the much more traditional “people are hanging out in a place for almost no reason when SUDDENLY ghosts or whatever.”
I love me some found footage, but I’m the first to admit that the genre can be very constricting, so it’s refreshing to find one that isn’t resorting to the mode in order to hide budgetary deficiencies or thin narratives. AASB has plenty of production value, including location shoots in Iran and Paris and filming (with what must have been great difficulty) in the actual catacombs. (This isn’t Cube, you know? Nothing against Cube, it’s a neat movie, but it’s also a movie designed around the fact that they could afford to build precisely 3/4s of one cube.) It also looks better than your typical found footage movie, with a greater variety of shots–and shots whose lighting and movement are both carefully composed and artfully disguised as organic to the moment, something which has gotta be even trickier than it sounds. Along with very efficient editing and writing, the result is an engaging experience whose momentum almost never flags.
But I have come here to bury As Above, So Below, not to praise it, so where does the movie go wrong? The problems are there from the beginning, but only come to full fruition in the final act–as with the piano, a missing note at the end makes the whole song incomplete. So I was still completely with the movie as Scarlett’s quest took her and her crew–a cameraman, the ex-fling George, and a gang of shiftless French layabout spelunkers (yes)–into the catacombs under the city. In fact, there’s a moment about halfway through the film when I realized it wasn’t going to be quite what I was expecting (which, to be honest, was a French take on The Descent, or more accurately a French take on the Aussie indie faux-doc The Tunnel) and became very, very interested, but that feeling didn’t last forever.
The film rushes a little through some of the standard beats (the moment when a character gets stuck and panicky has nothing on The Descent‘s definitive rendering), partly because it has a lot of ideas to burn through, from cursed tunnels to creepy cults to shifting passageways. There’s a version of AASB that could have easily been more like The Navidson Record from House of Leaves, more’s the pity. What we get isn’t bad, but the increasing use of surreal and supernatural elements are really where the problems start to surface. It becomes apparent that the movie is writing checks it has no intention of cashing, and by a certain point they’re all starting to bounce.
See, there are two kinds of horror movies–realistic, external horror, where characters get into a bad situation and whether they will get out depends on their luck and will; and surrealistic, internal horror, where characters are forced to confront their flaws and fears, and whether they will escape depends on achieving catharsis. I tend to think of the latter as Silent Hill horror stories (although ironically the Silent Hill movie didn’t actually do this), where a certain amount of random weirdness is to be expected and excused as long as most of the story is an effective psychological metaphor for a sufficiently interesting protagonist to explore. There’s a long and storied history of this kind of horror both within cinema and without; Polanski’s Repulsion comes to mind, as does Jacob’s Ladder and the classic short story about creeping madness, “The Yellow Wallpaper” (PDF). And I have nothing against them, so long as they’re well executed, although I prefer them when they acknowledge early on that they’re depicting a non-literal process.
Where As Above, So Below goes wrong, then, is that it sits uneasily on the divide between these two types of movies–a Descent-style story of a subterranean expedition gone violently wrong and a 1408-style story about a bad place where your flaws come alive and destroy you. The surrealism immediately begins to undercut the literal plot–when anything can happen, nothing matters and both rules and expectations go out the window. Meanwhile the literal plot requires a certain adherence to reality in terms of the sets and scary visuals. Ie., the film can’t go full-on hallucination, which hamstrings its attempts to explore the characters. The most significant problem, though, is just that the characters aren’t deep enough to power all the weirdness. Their psychology is extremely simplistic, mostly involving conflicts of guilt over not saving a loved one from death. Part of this is due to the film’s realistic front half, which establishes the sort of shallow but fun characters that would make for a good adventure movie rather than the dramatically complex characters needed for this kind of psychological exploration. Part of it is simply due to the fact that it tries to do this for multiple characters, rather than focusing on Scarlett’s issues, experiences, and fears. Taken together, the film’s concept and structure would have required significant changes in order for both halves to work the way they should. As Above, So Below simply isn’t up to the task.
Overall, the movie mostly stops working during the last 30-40 minutes, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot to like and admire about this ambitious, original, well-made film. And it’s not as though there aren’t creepy, tense, or exhilarating moments aplenty, even in that later portion. The last scene in particular is just about perfect. An interesting semi-failure, this is definitely worth watching all the same. If nothing else, it offers a nice, restrained take on the use of found footage in horror–rather than making a big deal out of it, the film simply uses the form as a way to lock down our point of view to the characters’ (often literally, whenever it cuts to their helmet-cams) and increase our sense of claustrophobia and instability. Not every found footage movie needs to turn meta or work overly hard to justify its own style. It’s enough simply to frame this harrowing, twisty journey into the depths beneath Paris as a document instead of a story. It’s a grace note, and one the film definitely earns for itself. This isn’t a grimy or despairing film at all; somehow the optimism of all those adventures-in-archaeology movies seeps through, and the result is a film that believes in magic. Even if it doesn’t quite achieve that, I give it mad points for trying.
Killtoberfest 3 continues! Click here for more horror (but not horrible) reviews, including Killtoberfests 1 and 2.