As Above, So Belowby Paul Blom / 05.09.2014
Ah, Paris… The fantasy destination of most women (and some men), who still harbour a twinge of the romantic within (whether they’ve actually been or not). Alas, you won’t be seeing any beautifully sweeping Paris cityscapes defined by the Eiffel Tower or the Seine (except in the cool closing credit montage). Instead, you’ll be sucked down into the ancient catacombs beneath the city streets, you know – where evil lurks.
Utilising the found footage / faux documentary device, we meet the main character Scarlett (played by Perdita Weeks) – a driven, well-educated young woman trying to find the truth behind ancient mythology, in particular that which her late father sought (focussing on the elusive, alchemy-linked artefact, the Philosopher’s Stone). Her search has led her from the Middle East to Paris, where she believes the key to the mystery lies, her searching journey followed by a documentary filmmaker.
Not quite Indiana Jones meets The Descent and Tomb Raider (although some parallels can be drawn), the film’s gritty, naturalistic approach has Scarlett and her ex BF (who she allows to tag along because he’s fluent in ancient texts), seeking out clues as to the item’s possible location, and with the cameraman and a trio of anarchic French spelunking adventurers (who know their way around the catacombs), traverse into these vast, foreboding, unpredictable tunnels (the Hermetic reference in the title soon becoming integral).
Seen from the cameraman’s perspective, and head-mounted mini-cams, the group’s descent soon turns into literal downward spiral, with strange and deadly occurrences visiting themselves upon the party via their pasts, exposing their every fear as dark forces gather round to trap and ultimately, destroy them.
While the mockumentary tradition is more established as a comedic / satirical approach (This Is Spinal Tap and other amazing Christopher Guest-linked movies, including Best In Show), the found footage technique has become well-wedged in the horror genre – especially gaining attention in the 90’s with the legendary Man Bites Dog and The Blair Witch Project, leading to one of its most successful franchises, Paranormal Activity, as well as many others from Apollo 18 to The Zombie Diaries.
The whole thing began as a great low cost foot-in-the-door for newcomer filmmakers, but has become a legitimate genre in itself (beyond that of a horror sub-genre), with established and accomplished names also venturing into exploring it as a storytelling device, from Rainman director Barry Levinson (The Bay), and Die Hard 2 director Renny Harlin (Devil’s Pass), to acclaimed actor Jake Gyllenhaal (starring in End Of Watch), and bankable producer / director J.J. Abrams (involved with Cloverfield and Super 8 in those roles respectively).
As Above So Below director Erick Dowdle is no stranger to the found footage style, having entered into it headlong seven years ago with The Poughkeepsie Tapes, followed by the impressive remake of the great Spanish flick Rec for an English audience as Quarantine.
Avoiding any details about this film before viewing it, my expectations were higher, but ultimately I was left feeling a bit disappointed. Where some claustrophobic moments were well utilised (some would argue not enough), elements amounting to the film’s low points include the cast’s over-staged acting, overly dark scenes, and too much camera shake (which I understand would be the result if your life and soul is about to be devoured by a demon from the netherworld. Having said that, this is usually an issue for me with movies like these, does it add to the overall believability of the filmic content? Under normal circumstances, I don’t know who would still be pointing a camera at the source of the danger, instead of dropping it and running away; running feet disappearing into the distance being all that is found on the retrieved footage!).
If this all sounds like not your type of tea, you must at least agree that the poster design is pretty cool, and if you’re a Max Richter fan, his soundtrack greatly enhances the overall mood.