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Friday, Aug. 29, 2014 09:54 pm

"Below" a Cut Above Standard Horror Fare

On the surface, John Erik Dowdle’s As Above, So Below appears to be a typical horror movie populated with stereotypes stuck in an all-too familiar situation.  However, it quickly becomes apparent that what with its uncommonly intelligent script and its precise, economic execution that this low-budget fright film is a cut above the typical genre fare.  Surprisingly, the movie winds up living up to its auspicious beginning as it plays against its own conventions in the final act resulting in the best found-footage horror film since the first Paranormal Activity (2007).

Scarlett (Perdita Weeks) makes an important discovery in As Above, So Below.
Courtesy Universal Pictures

Urban archeologist Scarlett (Perdita Weeks) is cut from the same cloth as Indiana Jones, fearlessly venturing into dangerous areas on her single-minded quest to find an artifact known as the Philosopher’s Stone, an object created in the Middle Ages that supposedly is able to turn base metals into gold and is the key to eternal life.  While the young woman knows that finding this object would do her career a world of good, she also wants to clear her father’s name, who was driven mad seeking the same object, ultimately committing suicide. Having discovered a key clue to the stone’s whereabouts with the help of her former colleague George (Ben Feldman), she enlists the aid of Papillon (Francois Civil), an expert at navigating the catacombs that lie beneath Paris, where she thinks this relic lies.  With fellow explorers Souxie (Marion Lambert) and Zed (Ali Marhyar) as well as documentary filmmaker Benji (Edwin Hodge) in tow, these six head to beneath the City of Light seeking treasure but finding something very different indeed.

Some may knock the use of the found footage technique used here as being obvious and overdone, but Dowdle and his brother Drew who co-authored the script, employ it in a logical manner and utilize it in a way that doesn’t distract from the story but enhances it.  Much of the suspense in the film is built around the increasing sense of claustrophobia that builds as the group travels deeper and deeper beneath the streets, which the handheld aesthetic intensifies as the cameras - one mounted on each of the character’s headlamps – move in a tighter and more limited manner as the walls close in.

Things start to go south for Zed (Ali Marhyar) and Benji (Edwin Hodge) in As Above, So Below.
Courtesy Universal Pictures

However, it’s the Dowdles’ script that ultimately surprises, leading us down a familiar path, only to take an interesting turn in the third act, undercutting our expectations.  As the group’s journey continues, their surroundings slowly change until it becomes apparent that their reality has somehow been altered.  From paths that appear straight yet circle back to where they began, the appearance of objects that couldn’t logically be in the catacombs and the sighting of people from the character’s lives who have died, Dowdle effectively builds upon each of these inexplicable events, effectively creating a sense of dread that’s underscored by the game and capable cast. 

In the end, it’s the fact that the film actually offers a degree of hope for its characters that separates it from the genre pack.  Whereas most exercises such as these lead each member of the group to certain doom, Above is ultimately about redemption.  Each of the survivors is forced to come to terms with an event from their past that haunts them and in doing so, are allowed to make amends, offering each a degree of salvation.  When Scarlett says earlier in the film “we should just keep moving forward,” it appears to be a horrible suggestion as the group’s troubles only worsen.  Ultimately, it proves to be sound advice that only those willing to acknowledge their past mistakes will have the opportunity to follow.


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