As Above, So Below (2014)

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Directed by John Erick Dowdle
Written by Drew Dowdle and John Erick Dowdle

Rated R

Perdita Weeks as Scarlet Marlowe
Ben Feldman as George
Edwin Hodge as Benji
Francois Civil as Papillon
Marion Lambert as Souxie
Ali Marhyar as Zed

The filmmakers of As Above, So Below set out to make a genuinely scary and original horror film. I think. Glimpses of potential in the film are undercut by the nauseating overkill of the “found footage” craze, with the shaky camerawork distracting from an already-flimsy thriller. This is proof positive that Labor Day weekend is a dumping period of films not good enough for summer releases, but the studio figured it might make some money, avoiding a straight-to-DVD release.

The premise of the story is promising enough. Welsh actress Perdita Weeks plays highly educated alchemy scholar Scarlett Marlowe, who embarks on a journey to locate the legendary Philosopher’s Stone. Her exploration takes her from Iran to Paris, where she must venture below the streets into the catacombs. Scarlett is continuing the work of her late father, whose death was the result of a suicide. Scarlett is joined by a team of explorers, including former flame George (Ben Feldman), who senses the adventure will be met with ominous results. Ya think?

The film wants to be the claustrophobic nightmare that befell the young women in the gripping masterpiece The Descent. The underground cave setting and the young group of explorers are reminiscent of The Descent -- but that’s where the similarities end. If the jittery “found footage” distraction weren’t a fatal blow for the film, it could be a number of other missteps. First, I understand that most, if not all, horror films need some time to set the scene of the story. As Above, So Below takes so much time getting started, we hardly care when the predictable pratfalls begin striking the group. Even more predictable, they begin getting knocked off, one by one. We have no investment in these characters, so their demise is hardly worth more than a shrug.

Next, when the movie does begin to improve, Scarlett and company encounter weird spirits and objects - some harmless, some inexplicably violent. The less-than-subtle symbolism of the, uh, descent into hell is also populated by a grab bag of supernatural activities. Paranormal activities, I guess. Credibility in the story is stretched even further when the film attempts to become philosophical, linking the characters’ fate (death or redemption) to confronting a specific dark period from their past. If the film were more effective with atmosphere and pacing, this premise could have been compelling. Alas, we’re left feeling cheated - and worst of all, bored.

This is a shame too. I liked the actors. They were convincing, doing their best in the midst of shoddy direction and a wafer-thin script. The effects were decent, too - but I couldn’t be sure, with the shaky camerawork taking away from the overall enjoyment of the movie. I have zero desire to see anymore of these films. What began as an auspicious and truly creepy approach to horror films is now past overkill. Enough already. Save yourself the time and money, and rewatch The Descent instead.

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