Friday, August 29, 2014

Review: As Above, So Below (2014)

As Above, So Below (2014)

Rated R for bloody violence/terror, and language throughout

As Above, So Below is modestly scary at times, but that's about all it has going for it. It varies between being overstuffed with plot in the opening and having too little of it in the rest of the film, the characters are all dull ciphers with only the faintest hints of backstory and personality who exist only to die some unsatisfying deaths, and its attempts at an otherworldly, Silent Hill-esque vibe work in bits and pieces early on but fall flat as the film progresses and turns into a parade of jump scares. It's the sort of movie you expect to see dumped into theaters on Labor Day weekend, traditionally the slowest weekend of the year at theaters -- filler that's going to make most of its money when the DVD is hastily pushed out the door two months from now in time for Halloween.

The film is about six people -- a young archaeologist named Scarlett, her translator George, her cameraman Benji, and a trio of Parisian urban explorers/guides named Papillon, Zedd, and Souzie -- who dive into the catacombs of Paris looking for a treasure that Scarlett and George feel was buried down there in the Middle Ages. That's the only part that really matters, anyway. The first act, before they actually go down into the catacombs, plays out like a found-footage riff on Indiana Jones or The Da Vinci Code, with Scarlett and George searching for clues as to where a medieval alchemist's greatest secrets might be buried. Until it became clear where this film was headed, I actually liked where the plot seemed to be going, even if I was waiting for the scares to really begin. Scarlett apparently had something going on in her past with her father, who had killed himself, while strange people seemed to follow them and give them clues before vanishing into thin air. It laid the foundation for an intriguing and spooky mystery...

...but then proceeded to completely drop it once the crew actually began exploring the catacombs, at which point it turns into a generic spook show whose only plot involves the dwindling party moving from point A to point B, finding that point B is pretty much Hell, and struggling to get back to point A. George and Papillon get the barest hints of past traumas that they're dealing with (the rest get no development whatsoever), but absolutely nothing is done to build on this. The scene from the trailer where Papillon gets sucked into a burning car inhabited by a ghost, screaming that he's sorry? That's literally the only information we get on his backstory before he's killed. It's implied that he had failed to save somebody in the past, but who this is and what happened is never explained. Same thing with George's dead brother and Scarlett's dead father, who are treated as afterthoughts. We get the sense that the Hell our protagonists are trapped in is exploiting their personal traumas, but since we never get any explanation of what these actually are, we are left with no reason to care about why they are suffering. It doesn't help that the film's scare factor takes a nosedive about halfway in; while some scenes early on were downright bone-chilling, before long it starts throwing reanimated corpses and unexplained robed figures at the screen to get us to jump out of our seats, and it wears thin very rapidly.

I'll give credit where credit is due. The actors may have had nothing to dig into when it came to their characters, but they played terrified very well. Perdita Weeks especially made a great heroine as Scarlett, with her search for the truth about her father's work working as well as it did partly because of how into it she was. I just wish that she got more of a character to chew on, because I really liked Scarlett and wanted to see her story treated with more than just token glances after that. Likewise, aside from how it all too often cut away from the kills, the found-footage angle was never intrusive, even if it felt like it was merely there for its own sake. And on the few occasions where the film actually did pull off being really scary... my God was it scary. The early scenes in the catacombs especially had me convinced that I might not be able to sleep that night. Perhaps it's a good thing that it fell apart, because had it managed to maintain the sort of tension it had in those early scenes, I might've needed new pants by the end of it.

Score: 2 out of 5

Dull, lifeless, and blah after its promising opening, this film is half-hearted at best and a snore at worst, with only a few redeeming factors that kept it from being totally disposable. Hell, I couldn't even work up much passion to write this.

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