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1 review, 4 user ratings

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As Above, So Below
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by Jay Seaver

"The back door into the kingdom of the dead."
4 stars

A few minutes into "As Above, So Below", I was snickering a bit as the heroine smashed an unspeakably old wall because she thought there might be something behind it, because that is some ridiculous Indiana Jones-style archaeology. This is immediately followed by the thought that mocking a movie for calling to mind some of one's favorites is pretty silly. This movie is kind of silly, too, but with a more enjoyably pulpy sensibility than the typical found-footage movie.

The archaeologist in question is Scarlett (Perdita Weeks), young but accomplished, and following in the footsteps of her father in the study of alchemists and the Philosopher's Stone. What she found in Iran could serve as a key to help her find it within Paris, although she needs the help of ex-boyfriend George (Ben Feldman) to translate. Once they have a location, they recruit a trio of urban explorers - Papillon (François Civil), Souxie (Marion Lambert), and Zed (Ali Marhyar) - to take them to where a hidden passage can be found. Tagging along is Benji (Edwin Hodge), who is shooting a documentary on Scarlett.

It can be taken as a given that this crew's going to get lost, and the filmmakers probably actually do the thing where folks think they're walking in a straight line but wind up back where they started a bit earlier than the audience might expect. In a lot of ways, the presentation is kind of standard; this is at least the third first-person horror film that director John Erick Dowdle and co-writer/producer/brother Drew Dowdle have made, and it may not be the best choice for this material; the fact that everything is caught on video means that there's no wiggle room between "manifestations" and "hallucinations", and there is little excitement in feeling an audience staring at a dark screen (when the lighting is not unrealistically good) or watching everything shake as people run. The one bit of style that seems a little off the first-person standard - something akin to a videogame speedrun - seems a bit jammed in.

If the technique is unexceptional, at least the attitude is fun. There's a boring obsession about many of these movies, trying to debunk or validate a belief in something nasty or flailing about to have a reason for the cameras to be on before things start getting crazy. Scarlett and company, on the other hand, are on a treasure hunt, whether figuratively or for lost knowledge, and even with George claustrophobic and with unresolved issues, there's an excitement to this quest. And even once the scary stuff starts happening, the Dowdles always seem to have a second to say the place is cool as well as eerie. Plus, darn it, secret passages, coded maps, and rooms with puzzles that need to be solved to avoid triggering booby traps are fun, creating an air of adventure as much as horror.

Perdita Weeks winds up doing the most to embody that on-screen. Scarlett smiles a lot more than most driven investigators, and it's not a particularly crazy smile even when she's doing crazy things. Her sweet, enthusiastic demeanor makes for a good pairing with Ben Feldman's George, with Feldman playing the character as less caustically sarcastic than many would but still getting across the wariness of a guy who knows just how much trouble Scarlett can innocently cause. François Civil grounds things a bit as the practical, experienced urban spelunker, managing to make Papillon collected but also able to signal that if this guy's showing a little nervousness, everyone else should be freaking out. Marion Lambert, Edwin Hodge, and Ali Marhyar fill the main cast out nicely, while Hamid Djavadan has a nice bit in the beginning as a friend of Scarlett's father that makes for a good sidekick in Iran - kind of the John Rhys-Davies role, if we're thinking in terms of Indiana Jones.

Of course, this is much more tilted to horror than those movies, and the Dowdles are practiced at that. They do a good job of seeding scares, getting the audience off-guard, and letting loose good jumps on a regular basis. They do seem to go the "anything can happen for no internal rhyme or reason a little too often, especially earlier, but I also wouldn't exactly be surprised if a second viewing had any supernatural manifestations explainable as being pulled from these characters' own fears. They make good use of the anything-goes feeling in the homestretch, throwing things at the audience just quick enough to register that there's a genuinely impressive variety of weird stuff going on, sometimes barreling through it in a way that marks both panic and bravery. They integrate a soundtrack by Max Richter that enhances the tension without being obvious enough to make one wonder why a found-footage movie has a score.

"As Above, So Below" is surprisingly good, which means that there are a lot of reasons to doubt in it, and the film may not overcome those issues for everyone - I really do think it might have been better off not being first-person. But there aren't enough scary movies made with this much sense of adventure to balance the expected doom and dread, so while part may be too-familiar, the rest is a nice change of pace.

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originally posted: 08/31/14 03:03:57
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User Comments

9/16/17 Langano Lame. 1 stars
7/25/17 Chaz Walter My absolute FAVORITE found footage film. Blew my mind. 5 stars
9/04/14 amy tolley GREAT MOVIE WE LOVED IT 5 stars
9/01/14 KingNeutron Watched it with a good friend and we both enjoyed it, some good scares 4 stars
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