‘As Above, So Below’ not great, but watchable

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September 8, 2014

10:10 PM

As I said at the beginning of my “Deliver Us from Evil” review a couple of months ago, the horror genre is my default in terms of movies to catch up on. I like getting wrapped up in the suspense and intensity of the action, feeling the anticipation of the next scare, but never quite knowing when it will come.

The end of August saw a new found-footage horror film from brother writer/director duo Drew and John Erick Dowdle, “As Above, So Below.” While the film showcases many overly familiar elements in a worn-out subgenre, there’s enough tension and atmosphere to slightly mask its flaws.

While the combination of the horror genre and the found footage style, or cinema verité, may have first been brought to light with films like “The Blair Witch Project” in 1999, it was not popularized until the release of Matt Reeves’s “Cloverfield” in 2008. Since then, the horror market has been oversaturated with similar films, primarily because they are cheaper to produce. Conceivably, it is easier to create scares with this style, as well, because of the shaky documentary-like cinematography not being able to capture everything within the frame. Lack of visibility is one of the staples of the horror genre, and found footage exploits that characteristic to the fullest.

Understandably then, it would be easy for any casual filmgoer to think “As Above, So Below” is no different than any other similar film. And truth be told, it isn’t. Drew and John Erick Dowdle do, however, bring some experience that proved instrumental in keeping the film interesting. For anyone who might not know, “As Above, So Below” depicts a group of renegade archaeologists spelunking in the catacombs beneath the streets of Paris. The deeper they go, the more the spirits of the tombs within begin to play tricks with the group’s minds and confront them with their inner demons.

What one should recognize from this plot summary is that these characters are exploring tight, dark spaces. The Dowdle brothers have some experience with that sort of setting using the found-footage style in their 2008 film “Quarantine,” a remake of a Spanish film called “[REC].” Not only is there plenty of tension within “As Above, So Below,” to engross the viewer, it is the most claustrophobic of any horror movie in the last decade, since “The Descent” in 2005. The Dowdle brothers truly prove themselves veterans of both the horror genre and cinema verité style, utilizing both darkness and cramped space to their advantage.

The film may be all of these things, but none of the proceedings are overtly scary. Many of the scares in the script are overly reliant on well-worn genre and style conventions to which audiences have become accustomed. In many ways, found footage is the easy way out for both filmmakers and producers. A lot of the suspense comes from the plot (demonic entities prey on the minds of the unsuspecting and make them confront their own demons), which is fairly well worn in its own right. Additionally, because of the plot, the film asks viewers to suspend logic in numerous instances, which may not be odd for a horror film, but it verges on a strangeness that should not normally be accepted by any rational audience.

There are some problems with pacing, as well. Not only does the film start like a haze of bullets, nearly every scene is paced relentlessly fast. In spite of the sum of its parts, the end product feels curiously more languid than one might expect. Maybe it’s needless to complain about a typical flaw of horror cinema, but the film is guilty of presenting a host of throwaway characters that are simply cannon fodder.

Trust me, there is plenty wrong with the Dowdle brothers’ “As Above, So Below,” but it finds a way to keep things strangely watchable — the film’s final act is weird enough to frustrate any viewer under normal circumstances. As clichéd as the film is, it should not be this likeable. It should be another dime a dozen sort of film that can be easily forgotten before your next visit to the theater. And yet, it is impossibly hard to deny the strengths of its few merits.

I do, however, concede one thing. A few days ago, I was talking to a group of friends about movies that each one of us hated that most other people liked. When it was my turn to list films, I stated that I couldn’t recall any such films and that there were plenty of movies that I liked that most others hated, instead. I acknowledge that “As Above, So Below” will probably end up in the latter category.

Rating: 2.5 stars out of 4

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