As Above, So Below puts found footage inside catacombs
As Above, So Below
Review by Daniel Rester
As Above, So Below is the latest found footage horror film in a long string of them from the past few years. Yawn. Like many others, I’m getting pretty tired of this genre because of the mediocre-to-terrible films it constantly delivers. Below isn’t anything to liven up the crowd, but at least I can say that it tries some things that are different from the usual. That doesn’t necessarily mean it succeeds though.
In Below, we follow Scarlett (Perdita Weeks), an adventurous and brainy woman who is searching for the philosopher’s stone. Scarlett is the type, for convenience of course, who can speak about five languages and has two or three PhD’s. She also has a dark past connected to her father, who was a famous alchemist.
Scarlett’s hunt for the stone leads her to Paris. She and her friend, George (Ben Feldman), determine that the stone is located beneath Paris in a secret chamber in the Catacombs. So she and George team up with a cameraman named Benji (Edwin Hodge) and three non-tour guide “experts” of the underground ossuaries, led by a confident guy named Papillon (Francois Civil). The group stumbles about in the tunnels and eventually they end up finding something they regret coming upon.
After a meh opening scene, Below actually sets up an intriguing beginning act. Seeing Scarlett and George discovering clues to the stone location is fairly interesting, and the past relationship established between them provides some believability and tension for their characters. Weeks and Feldman do a fine job with their performances as far as these things go.
The Benji and Papillon characters provide some of the comic relief, and both Hodge and Civil are easy to get behind too in terms of personality. However, all of the six main characters are never very developed as far as backstory goes. At least not as much as an average viewer would want. Certain things happen to some of the characters and the results are less care-worthy than the filmmakers want you to think.
Instead of just going for a straight-up 93-minute thrill ride or making the film longer in order to flesh out the characters for a more established emotional foundation, Below falls in between somewhere. As mentioned, the story setup is okay. But then the movie loses momentum as the group just moves about in the catacombs for the majority of the film. The people just don’t talk about or come across anything very intriguing for a lot of the adventure, and their personalities can only drive them so far in rooting for them. I will say, though, that the last twenty minutes or so do provide a few surprises and scares.
John Erick Dowdle directed Below, and the script was written by he and his brother Drew. Dowdle does a pretty strong job at building a creepy atmosphere, aided greatly by the fact that some of the film was really shot in the Catacombs of Paris. The director, who previously made Quarantine (2008) and Devil (2010), knows how to pick and use locations that lend themselves well to horror material. Dowdle needs to work on his story momentum and character establishments a bit more, but at least he is a director that doesn’t rely on jump scares every thirty seconds.
As for the shaky camerawork, it’s annoying as usual with these found footage things. Quick-movement handheld work that lends itself well to the aesthetic design of a scene is all fine and dandy; great examples are found in Saving Private Ryan (1998) and Slumdog Millionaire (2008). But Below, like myriad other films in the found footage horror genre, uses the technique constantly throughout its entire runtime. Does it work well in certain scenes? Very much so. But most of the time it seems unnecessary and makes one yearn for level and focused medium and wide shots. Also, the found footage-type stylistic choice is kinda defeated anyways when a music score invades scenes for dramatic effect. Are these characters with cameras strapped to their heads also carrying an orchestra around in their back pockets?
Below has two good lead actors and a mysterious atmosphere going for it, plus a climax that is pretty cool and scary. However, the film is disappointing because it fails to make much sense in individual scenes or fully deliver on its setup and potential. Plus it just isn’t very horrifying on a whole. If the characters were more interesting or my nerves had been jangled more it would be easier to forgive the film’s flaws. As is, it’s average.
Score: 2 out of 4 stars (Grade Equivalent for Me: C).
MPAA Rating: R (for bloody violence/terror, and language throughout).
Runtime: 1 hour and 33 minutes.
U.S. Release Date: August 29th, 2014.