Monday, September 1, 2014

Review: As Above, So Below

by Adam Riske
As above average movies go, this one is so below average.

As Above, So Below might be the biggest mixed bag of the year. Its biggest problem is that it was conceived and marketed as a horror movie (which it’s not good at being) and not the kick-ass adventure movie that it should be. It features an especially committed and affable performance by lead actress Perdita Weeks and an effective, claustrophobic and disorienting style worth noting. I have rarely felt as physically uncomfortable as I have while watching parts of As Above, So Below. I had to drive home with the windows rolled down. It’s effective in that regard.
Obvious comparisons will be made with this movie and another horror cave classic -- The Descent --  and this new movie is nowhere near as good, developed or haunting as that one. But it shouldn’t be dismissed either. I had a great time at As Above, So Below despite knowing that it is often terrible filmmaking from writer/director John Erick Dowdle (Devil, Quarantine). The whole project feels as if someone made a movie where Indiana Jones lived through the last act of Event Horizon.

The plot in brief: A team of explorers venture beneath the Paris catacombs in search of treasure and history. During their excursion, most are faced with personal demons that come back to haunt them.

Let’s start with the good. The best thing As Above, So Below has going for it is Perdita Weeks, who is now my 2014 movie girlfriend. I want to buy her all of the pretty horses. She’s like someone took Jocelin Donahue and gave her the personality of Rachel Weisz’s character in The Mummy (with a Welsh accent to boot). It’s pretty cute how committed she is as the Lara Croft-lite leader of the explorers in this, an essentially goofy late August programmer. She is playing it as if it’s a character for the ages. I appreciated that the Perdita Weeks character wasn’t this rogue who was willing to put the team at risk for her own benefit. Instead, she always cares. And that makes us, as the audience, root for her that much more. The rest of the cast is forgettable but agreeable, including a generic second banana guy that looks similar to a poor man’s Andrew Keegan and a French explorer who is basically Cave Banksy, always tagging the caves with his name because he’s the shit. I was happy to see that the movie clearly likes its characters and doesn’t want to punish them, though it certainly is not above doing that. This is a horror movie after all.
It also helps that the movie is entertaining, well-paced, short and that I had zero expectations before seeing it. I think I only saw the trailer one time before watching the movie and I couldn’t remember a thing about it. All I knew was I was fiddin to go deep below dem Paris catacombs, yo.

As Above, So Below also continues the trend of horror movies that have great opening credit sequences that for some stupid reason play instead over the end credits. The Evil Dead remake did this too. The sequence for As Above, So Below would have been great upfront because it plays a spooky little song called “Hypsoline” by La Femme that sets the tone for the entire movie. This movie easily could have been called Spooky Doings: Cave Kids in the Catacombs.

I also enjoyed how tossed off the reactions were to the scariest imagery in the movie. In one case, there is an area in the cave where naked women are chanting by fire and one of them stares right at our heroes. Cave Banksy is all “Oh yeah, people do weird shit down here.” It undercuts the scares but it’s pretty funny in what I’m sure is an unintentional way. Again, this works better as The Goonies than it does as The Descent.
As for the bad, the filming of this movie is a nightmare. It’s shot under the conceit that the cameras on the explorers’ helmets are filming what they see, but that’s just an excuse for some worse-than-usual shaky cam nonsense. Establishing shots are missing at certain points, especially in the climax, so you have no idea what is actually happening at many times. The whole thing is indecipherable and interchangeable, i.e. the crawl through bones could come after they repel down a well or before swimming through blood and none of it would matter. I felt as if I was watching an episode of MTV’s Fear most of the time.

I mentioned earlier that the movie doesn’t work as horror. There are many reasons why that's true. First, it sets up the movie with the lead character looking for THE PHILOSOPHER’S STONE. You know, the stone from alchemist NICHOLAS FLAMMEL! So the movie kicks off immediately with a Harry Potter vibe cutting the balls off of the scares until we’re in claustrophicville in the caves. How great would it have been if the adventurer was played by Emma Watson and she’s back solving mysteries? As is, As Above, So Below feels like we’re on Hogwarts business.
The whole movie is so silly. I’m talking National Treasure level goofy, especially in its historical deductions. My favorite is when one character says “CELESTIAL SPHERES!” then another asks “Was this before or after Copernicus?” and the first one then says “Stand the fuck back!” And the conclusion of this movie will either leave you with one of two reactions “What a jip!” or “Well, that seems to be a logical way for a movie with this plot to end.” It betrays all things horror but it’s almost ballsy in its shrugginess.

When it’s all said and done, I think I love this movie even though I know it’s terrible. Go see it. I want to talk to people about it. I hope you think it is as above average in terms of fun as I did, but be warned: you might think it sucks, like it’s so below you.

17 comments:

  1. Great write up from Adam! He nailed my feelings on this whole affair (and apparently we have the same movie girlfriend taste!). Perdita Weeks was incredibly charming as the lead. I agree, I was feeling more of a Goonies/Harry Potter vibe than horror. I wish that would've been the whole movie mixed in with the effective claustrophobia stuff.

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    1. Thanks Kyle. Hopefully Perdita gets some more work. She's utterly charming.

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    2. Her name is Perdita, as a Shakespeare lover I already think she is fucking cool

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    3. Oh you poor sad toff

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  2. Defo a mixed bag movie. Im getting that vibe from your review of mixed feelings. One min you like it. Next pulling it apart a little.
    I also don't like it when people think they are above a movie. A movie is made to be enjoyed on a level but you need to be on the same level to enjoy it.
    I am a bit bored of the skakey cam thing. I'm not above it. Just bored of it. But saying that its got my vote. There's enough going on in there to make me want to see it. Sounds good enough to seek out. Im in
    I'll take that riske

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    1. Let me know what you think when you see it. I think there's some good stuff in there, enough where I wish it was a better movie. I had a lot of fun with it though.

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  3. I checked it out when Ghostbusters wasn't an option, and like others have stated it's really a mixed bag. It's not a terrible movie, but I don't think it's all that good either.

    Now what helps it is there have been an absence of horror movies this year (soon there will be an abundance though). The Purge shouldn't be considered a horror movie, and many others have seen limited released or went straight to VOD. So with little competition the movie may look better.

    I would consider myself to be a tad claustrophobic, so some of the scenes were quite terrifying (particularly the crawling scene). But the shaky cam was unnecessary for the most part. Although I thought it did add tension/nausea to a couple scenes. Maybe they could work in shaky cam for a few moments in future movies, but at this point I am sick of it.

    I did like that the movie did invent its own set of rules, and the climax only really works because of them. Parts of the ending were confusing on first look, and I did have to ask around to figure out what happened (ala the "healing" scene). On second glance the title of the movie definitely plays a large role in the plot.

    I'm not sure if it's really a movie I'd recommend people pay $10+ seeing, but with the absence of any major releases for a few weeks you could do a whole lot worse.

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    1. I am extremly claustrophic! I hate lifts and I could hardly get through The Descent! Adam, you have sold me with the Rachel Weisz's character in The Mummy thing though! Have you ever seen The extraordinary adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec? You might have fun with that!

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    2. No I haven't. I'll check it out. I have to watch Yentl first :-)

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  4. The Philosopher's stone comment really made me laugh because I went on a long rant about my slight annoyance with the American change of title. My rant included a history of alchemy and finished with 'Plus they are all sorcerers so that really is redunant. I just imagine Jo hearing the Americans pitch for a title change and going: "It's fine...? As long as you don't change anything else. Please?" The woman knows her history darn it, she knows what she's doing!

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  5. I had pretty much the same reaction. I knew it wasn't a great movie, but I had a bit of fun watching it. And I agree, how could you not want Perdita to be your movie girlfriend. :)

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  6. Saw this last night (in an empty theater, too. The best way to see horror movies, in my opinion) and generally enjoyed it. Weeks is definitely great, and I really enjoyed the mix of adventure and horror (two genres I didn't realize I wanted to see mashed together).

    But I definitely think the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. None of the scary stuff was really all that scary, and most of the dialogue was pretty dumb. I liked how willing the French catacombs tour guide people were willing to go along with Lara Croft's plan. They were all like, "Nope, we're not going down there," and she was all like, "But I've found a secret path," and then they were all like, "Let's do it." Because that's the way people behave.

    I liked the ending, which [SPOILERS] was much more thoughtful than just "everybody dies." It gave me something to talk about with my wife when we left the theater.

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    2. Saw the film with only about a handful of people (it got virtually no promotion in my area,save a small poster in the local paper) in the theater. I only saw it because I love horror films, and because the title was intriguing--it sounded more like a title for a foreign film. It really wasn't that bad, it was a little scary in some scenes, and while the idea behind the scares in the catacombs isn't original, I thought it was an interesting change from the usual monsters-in-the-cave plot. I also liked how the main explorer, played by Perdita Weeks, turns out,unofficially, to be the real hero of the piece, since she winds up risking her own life at one point to get her crew out of there---the character dsoen't get enough credit for that, I feel. And, yeah, I liked the ending, mainly because I wasn't expecting it, for one thing---something you don't see in found footage movies often---at least the ones I've seen.

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  7. I saw this last sunday and was underwhelmed, maybe because I really liked the Dowdle brothers predecessor "Devil" and had much higher expectations.

    It was an ok movie, just right for a lazy rainy sunday afternoon.

    The cinematography was pure hell to watch. This may be one of the most annoying uses of found footage ever. Simply horrible and disorienting in a really bad way.

    It had some nice claustrophobic scenes and some fine effects, especially the one with the burning car and what happens with the guy. Very surprising and kind of funny.
    I also liked the ending, which makes the title count. Here in Germany it´s called "Catacombs" which totally misses the point.

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  8. Just saw this last month. I had low expectations going into it and was pleasantly surprised. I'm not a fan of found footage in general, I almost pledged to never see another found footage film after Europa Report. But, I think they did it pretty well. I did think that parts (much) of the film looked awful, but I was engaged with the characters and story so I gave it a pass. I found myself forgiving little things throughout. I seem to recall some awful CG as well. But, I liked all of the actors, especially the lead.

    The premise was so silly/stupid that I think it let's you know what you're in for from the beginning and not to take it too seriously, but just have a good time.

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  9. I would have thought it was obvious why the credits sequence is at the end instead of at the front of the film. Isn't the film presented entirely in found footage style? Opening with a well-designed animated credits sequence would completely rob it of the realistic effect they were aiming for right from the outset.

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