Director: John Erick Dowdle
Writer: John Erick Dowdle, Drew Dowdle
Stars: Perdita Weeks, Ben Feldman, Edwin Hodge
Release Date: August 29, 2014
If As Above, So Below doesn't make your stomach turn it will likely make your mind wince.
Scarlett, a beautiful and brilliant Tomb Raider-esque scholar, spends the first 20 minutes of As Above, So Below coming to the realization that she needs to explore the crypts beneath the streets of Paris. She enlists an old pal and a new crew on a search for the Philosopher's Stone. Yes, the relic from the first Harry Potter book if you were a British reader. The deeper they descend into the catacomb's network of caves, tunnels and wells the closer they get to the gates of Hell with a fate personalized for each of them. Whew.
(Side Note: A remarkable part of the film's marketing campaign is the Personal Hell experience on the official website. After syncing it with your Facebook you'll be treated to a customized decent in the catacombs complete with pictures from your own life, a map of where you live, and a message from someone close to you. I found it to be an effective and creepy use of social media and it's a shame it didn't really catch on.)
Perdita Weeks plays Scarlett. She'd be a great catch to take home to mum if she weren't so damned insane and went about every simple task with a death wish-like rapidity. Her foil and former lover is George, who explains outright that he will not be joining her literal decent into madness, which of course means he be right there by her side the entire time. George is played by Ben Feldman, who knows very well how these diegetic filmmaking exercises work after being in one of the best,Cloverfield. Found footage horror films thrive off every bit of verisimilitude they can muster. Recognizable faces tend to stick out and that's not a good thing. But hey, he's only Ben Feldman.
As with many of the faux documented films I see, I was impressed by the performances. At any given moment they have to "be real" in front of the camera. Yet, as with many others, the things they are required to do and say feel part of a contrived master plan. I don't know if I've ever seen more questions asked and explanations given in any film. The exposition, if you can even call it that, never stops. Add in the extra level of irritation that comes with many of these conversations being shouted in a close and echoey space.
Conversely, As Above, So Below is rather clever on the technical side of its storytelling/filmmaking. Finally, a reason (archeological documentation) and method (helmet cams) for the footage to roll continually! This is also where my biggest gripe with the film lies. Over the course of my theatrical viewing I grew increasingly nauseated with what we affectionally call the "shaky cam" effect, which is surprising as I'm usually a strong-stomached connoisseur of the found footage movement.
The endless spelunking, camera switching, and poor-lighting really took a toll on me. Not since The Blair Witch Project, which I promptly vomited right after seeing, have I felt as such. That's an awful feeling that can sour any movie-going experience and even though I wanted to get up and leave I stuck it out. Why? Well, I didn't want to have to watch the whole thing again another time! Such a reaction might not even belong in a review as it was my own Personal Hell if you will. My wife was fine and after a surface perusing of the IMDb message boards there doesn't seem to be a motion sickness epidemic afoot. Just be weary if you're prone to such reactions.
If As Above, So Below doesn't make your stomach turn it will likely make your mind wince. The over-written and suicidally-driven characters gradually deserve whatever awaits them down there. As if the initial journey wasn't bad enough there's a mirrored version of what they've already been through that's re-explored and even a moment where a character has to backtrack to a previous chamber. I suppose the film's title was attempting to warn us of this. Enter at your own risk, but don't say I didn't warn you.