"As Above, So Below" is a found footage thriller best left buried
That's it. I've had it. I've had enough. Game over, man, game over.
Sure, there was a time when found footage was a fun novelty, back in the original days of "Cloverfield" and the first couple of "Paranormal Activity" films. Back then, the style brought a fresh sense of immediacy to its familiar genre proceedings.
Now, it's just a gimmick and a transparently lazy one as well, merely serving as an excuse for uncreative writers and directors to pitch "(ENTER MOVIE HERE), but with found footage" and then make a crummy-looking film that maniacally shakes around whenever anything is actually happening on screen. Of course, studios keep green-lighting them because they cost pocket-change to make and earn their paltry budgets back in just their first weekends.
The new cave-based chiller "As Above, So Below" is admittedly far from the worst of the bunch. In fact, there are fragments of a decent horror-thriller scattered throughout the film. Unfortunately, they're all buried and crushed underneath everything infuriating about found footage – all that's dull, uncreative, indecipherable and even sometimes unintentionally hilarious.
The story certainly fits the bill, following the "(ENTER MOVIE HERE), but with found footage" template. At first glance, Neil Marshall's terrific modern horror classic "The Descent" seems to be playing the (ENTER MOVIE HERE) role, especially with the dark, claustrophobic cave setting. For much of "As Above, So Below," however, its inspiration appears to be the "National Treasure" films – not exactly prime cut material.
Scarlett (Perdita Weeks) is a daredevil archaeologist on the hunt for what her troubled father could never find: the philosopher's stone, the supposed life-giving pinnacle of alchemy. No, it's not at Hogwarts, guarded by a three-headed dog. As it turns out, all the clues point to the stone hidden away inside some lost catacombs deep underneath Paris.
After figuring out where the catacombs are locked away, Scarlett gathers a team together – a nervy former partner/fling (Ben Feldman, "Mad Men"), some French spelunkers and a documentarian (Edwin Hodge) recording a lot of unnecessary, unusable footage – to help get her to the legendary stone. Along the way, however, the gang gets lost and accidentally winds up in Hell (that's quite the wrong turn at Albuquerque). There, as the title suggests, everything is the same except more evil – puddles of water are now puddles of blood – and haunted by the crew's various personal demons. Actual demons show up as well whenever the screenplay gets bored and thinks they'd be scarier - plot, characters and themes be damned.
Even more bored, however, is the audience, which will likely end up spending most of "As Above, So Below" sleepy rather than scared. Way too much of the film is spent focusing on a cheap-looking Dan Brown-esque adventure clone, albeit somehow even sillier.
The underground labyrinth setting has a lot of potential. Thematically, it's clever, with buried secrets both historical and personal intertwining, and I'm reminded of the original marketing campaign for "The Descent," which listed off all the various fears – heights, darkness, claustrophobia, etc. – to be exploited in a cave. There are some creepy details lingering in the corners as well, like a woman eerily looking a bit too long and a bit too intently at our climbers, a candle-lit demon choir just hanging out in the caves and a fleeting glimpse of … someone behind some rocks.
For too long, though – other than a brief sequence where a character gets stuck in a tight crevice – that potential for terror goes tediously untapped. The creepy stuff remains background material to an uninteresting treasure hunt, led by a fairly selfish protagonist, routinely dragging unwilling participants into clearly dangerous situations.
Then again, by the time "As Above, So Below" finally does switch into horror movie mode, you might yearn for those earlier segments.
All of the scares are not only predictable and tired (at one point, a character falls in a pool of blood in either a clumsy homage to "The Descent" or a blatant rip-off) but made terror-free by director John Erick Dowdle – who also co-wrote the movie with his brother Drew – and his found footage camerawork.
Each scare is rendered incomprehensible with the now genre-familiar combination of flickering lights, camera glitches and the image shaking violently around like the camera operator just found a spider on his arm. Something frightening is probably happening; the audience just often has no idea what's going on.
Even horror fans merely hoping to satisfy a bit of bloodlust with some solid, memorable kills will likely walk out disappointed. The final body count is disappointingly paltry, with one random cast member making it all the way to the end only because there needed to be someone around to put a camera on our two leads (the found footage gimmick strikes again!).
It's pretty obvious considering the character spends the whole movie completely undeveloped until the very end, when the screenplay remembers he's still around. Like everything else, however, it feels lazy and doesn't particularly work.
As things get more hysterical near the end, laughs, if anything, are sadly more common in "As Above, So Below" than scares, with the philosopher's stone revealing its true form (once again sharing laughably too much with Harry Potter) and Scarlett Krav Maga-ing demons in a panic. I wish I was kidding.
But really, the last laugh belongs to "As Above, So Below" and the entire found footage subgenre, which has continually convinced audiences to pay good money to see rehashed movies intentionally made to look like amateur garbage.
Theaters and showtimes for As Above, So Below
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