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Friday, August 29, 2014

As Above So Below Review: Shaky Camera Spawns More Evil Shaky Cameras

Although it tries for something new, the horror flick As Above So Below delivers the same old thing.
The found-footage/shaky camera genre feels irrevocably stuck: once a celebrated visceral experience, directors now make us more motion-sick than truly terrified, letting half-baked scripts and shoddy acting turn things into decidedly B-level fare. But rather than evolve it by utilizing standard camerawork and handheld devices - thus celebrating the best aspects of both - we've seen just the opposite: a move to add more cameras and even more shakiness. Such is the state of As Above So Below, a film that dabbles in pseudo-science, dispenses too many horror film cliches, and tries its best to frighten us.

Scholar/explorer Scarlett (Perdita Weeks) is a kind of female Indiana Jones: impetuous but highly intelligent, she's carrying on the good work of her deceased father, looking for the mythological Philosophers Stone. Her early journey takes her to Iran, where she barely survives their efforts to blow up a series of catacombs that hold the Stone's possible location in Paris. Returning home, the adventurer hires a team of catacomb hunters and the Aramaic linguist George (Ben Feldman), who just happens to be her former lover, to venture into the ancient tunnels in search of the healing stone. Unfortunately, they're not ready for the madness they'll find, and those discoveries will push them to edge of death while Scarlett seeks the elusive Stone.

Above tries to elevate itself into a smarter genre horror film, as science and mythology clash in classic speculative fiction; but it too often loses that edge. Focusing nearly 30 minutes of time before they even descend into the catacombs, our characters sing and establish their backstories for too long before ultimately agreeing to work with one another. It's not until then that the film finally starts to look and feel like I'd expect, flipping back and forth between history lesson and tense build-ups before releasing some fairly scary moments. But then the ridiculous genre cliches begin to pop up, including principal camera guy Benjy (Edwin Hodge) making the decision to follow noises and mysterious tennants of the tunnels that will ultimately lead to his death. Dumb. Visually, we're forced into too many close-quarters camera shots where we can't even tell what is happening. The last 10 minutes of Above is just that, as Scarlett runs (and keeps running into) all sorts of danger as she seeks to understand the Stone's allure.

The one bright spot is Weeks: her striking features and tough-mindedness keeps the film from utterly hitting the skids. She's not a well-known property, but perhaps a leading director will make the smart decision to cast in future projects. The rest of the troupe is a collection of no-names that will probably (and should) remain so, their screaming and blank stares serving as 90% of their efforts. Director/Co-Writer John Erick Dowdle doesn't help at all, utilizing too little of the history of Paris and the stone mythology in favor of cheap scare tactics and too much shaky cam. The story of the Philosophers Stone sounds interesting, as does Scarlett's backstory, but Dowdle does little to keep that going through a terrible third act, where the team is just running through catacombs while Paris' dead try to catch them.

As Above So Below takes too long to get started, is too random in many parts, and too shaky and ineffective in others. Weeks does her best to keep this thing from going off the rails, but its mix of pseudo-science and Indiana Jones history soon gives way to a standard fright-fest that could have been so much more. The genre is in real trouble, and it's going to take a director with vision to pull it out of the muck before we see things truly evolve...lest horror fans abandon it altogether.

As Above So Below is Rated R for bloody violence/terror, and language throughout and has a runtime of just 93 minutes.

Discuss this review with fellow SJF fans on Facebook. On Twitter, follow us at @SandwichJohnFilms, and follow author Matt Cummings at @mfc90125.

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