Monday 1 September 2014

As Above, So Below

Hell Low There

As Above, So Below
2014 USA
Directed by John Erick Dowdle
UK Cinema release print.

As Above, So Below is a found footage horror film that... woah, wait... don’t go away.

Look I know these “found footage” horror movies are all a bit cliché and done to death at the moment but, you know, you don’t see people complaining about other kinds of cinematic techniques in relation to a specific genre, do you?

The fact is, found footage horror is as legitimate a sub-genre as any other, you are going to get good ones and bad ones and you’ll just have to do what you always do with every other movie you’re faced with in the course of your life... just give it a try.

Now I went to this film knowing it was already getting bad word of mouth on my timeline on twitter but I wanted to persevere with it anyway, since I’d kinda liked the trailer and it looked like a new spin of the old “Gate to Hell” plot which used to get a lot of play in movies, especially in the 1980s if I recall correctly.

So I went and sat down in my allocated seat in the cinema, only to find that the only other person in the cinema had chosen the seat right next to mine to be allocated. Which was interesting actually because the guy was a lot younger than me and had a passion for horror and action movies. It gave me another perspective to look at when I was chatting to him about recent movies he’d seen down my local. Kinda interesting and he seemed pretty cool and genuinely enthusiastic about film, which was a good thing.

Okay... so back to where you came in then...

As Above, So Below is a found footage horror film that follows the exploits of a young, amateur (or at least roguish) archeologist who has recently just gotten over the death of her father. She illegally enters some underground cave systems in Iran, just as the government there is about to bomb them to bits, to explore the archaeological findings there and, within the first five or ten minutes of the film, she already discovers a kind of occult version of the Rosetta Stone, which gives her a clue of where to find the Philosopher’s Stone which she is looking for. Already within these early sequences the director, who also directed Devil (reviewed here), is piling on the tension and suspension. Throughout the sequence, a siren is constantly sounding, which seems quite clear is a countdown to the detonation of the cave system our young protagonist finds herself in and, as she tries to flee and survive the explosion, she catches a glimpse of something which, if you’re paying attention as an audience member, you will immediately figure out will be used as repeat imagery in the later parts of the movie.

After this, we are introduced to our main protagonist formally and are with her as she gather’s her former friend (and reader of Aramaic) and then garners the service of some “guides” as she embarks on a journey through (and beneath) the tunnels of Paris in her quest to find knowledge and truth. And its in these early scenes that the director/writer gets two very important things right.

Number one is... pretty much all the main protagonists are likeable people who you wouldn’t mind spending time at a bar with. This makes a change to various recent movies such as V/H/S and Into The Storm (reviewed here), where you don’t care about being around the characters at all and wouldn’t fear for them when they get into the kinds of situations our heros here find themselves in. So it’s a big bonus, especially in a horror movie, when you find yourselves in the company of people who you care about enough that you don’t want to see them die.

The other big plus here is that you see that every member of the “expedition” is fitted with their own headgear which is a torch/video camera... so we can happily follow different people around via head-cam without worrying about the source of the shifting POV shots used to build the movie. Neither do we, in fact, have to worry about the fact that the various shots have been edited together but... I don’t really want to highlight why because that might constitute a spoiler later on down the line.

Of course, from here on in it all becomes one big, claustrophobic, shaky cam romp through darkly lit tunnels and grim, uneasy and sometimes even fairytale-like horror imagery. There’s a slightly false note early on in the “run around in fear” shenanigans where I believe the director was trying to pay homage to the famous “phone ringing” moment from Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker but, because he doesn’t have the same kind of slow pacing to build it up (as you would expect from this kind of movie), it doesn’t have anything like the same kind of impact this early on in the proceedings and it does kinda fall flat at that point, for a few heartbeats.

However, this doesn’t stop the rest of the movie from being a scary and suspense filled prospect as the characters slowly descend to, and then take a tour of, some kind of low budget rendering of Hell. The film isn’t as jump scary as something like, say, Neil Marshall’s The Descent, although I’m pretty sure there is a definite homage scene to this film in here too, but it is still quite expertly handled and certain moments even made me jump... I’m happy to say. There was even a moment where the director deliberately sets up your expectation of where a certain scare is going to come from and just basically uses your awareness of a very vivid presence in a room to distract you from seeing where the real scare is going to come from.This is impressive in itself but, when some of our surviving protagonists come across a similar place later in the movie, with exactly the same visual set up (a dead knight that looks like he’s stepped off the set of Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade), Dowdle manages to repeat the exact same trick and sucker you into checking out the wrong parts of the screen again. So I was really pleased about that.

One of the reasons this movie works so well is that the main cast are... all of them, every man and woman of them... giving fantastic and naturalistic performances. I already said that the characters are all quite likeable but they’ve also got a kind of innocent, naiveté about them, which is of course a good thing to exploit in a horror movie, and they can all make a really credible job of “losing it” when the tension gets too unbearable for the characters...  and possibly some of the audience members too.

The other reason is because the sets and sequences are littered with little details and almost dream/nightmare-like flourishes which are pitched in the backgrounds or sides of a shot. Little things which are tailored to catch the eye and dwell on the scary part of your brain while you watch our motley crew either miss them completely or spend time reacting to what they thought they saw. It’s good stuff and it all pulls together well, with some good editing, into a neat little “found footage” horror opus which I was very happy to be watching and which delivers some nice little twists and touches, not all of which are as easy to see coming as you might at first think (although some of them obviously were).

This is all supported with some really fear inducing sound design in subtle and, lets face it, some far less subtle but chillingly effective passages throughout the movie... more so than in a lot of horror movies which tend to employ the same tactics these days. It’s got some nice audio self referencing in it too... for instance in the constant soundings of “the trumpets” in Hell which become a regular pulse in an echo of the siren countdown in the tunnels in Iran at the start of the movie.

There’s a shot right near the end, it’s the second from last shot of the movie in fact, where it could be said the director fumbles the ball and we are confronted with a trick shot that, while giving the UK movie poster its relevance, also manages to negate the logic that it’s a found footage film. However, by this point I was happy to forgive the director for this because the lead up to this sequence was pretty amazing and there have been a lot worse mistakes recently in films of this nature and this one pretty much misses all of the traps it could have fallen into. I was also pleased that the movie didn’t just end in the way I’d expected it to. Instead, taking me to a place which I certainly didn’t see coming and this, if you are familiar with my writings here, is no easy thing to pull off.

Now I don’t know why this film has had such a lacklustre response, although I know people do seem to be having a kind of knee-jerk backlash kind of reaction to horror films using found footage as a method of delivery at the moment. All I can do though is call them like I see them and this is a movie I will be picking up on blu ray (when it hits the sales) and which I would recommend to any of my friends who like horror movies. It’s not a “scary as hell” kind of movie, although it does have its moments, and I suspect one or two people might want to put this on their “comfort-horror” list... but all I can say is that I really enjoyed my time with this one and it’s something I would love to see a sequel to at some point in the future. Not that I expect there to be one, to be honest.

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