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At The Picture Show
August 2014

As Above, So Below

Lost and found

Found-footage horror 'As Above, So Below' examines memory and loss with mixed success

As Above, So Below
Universal Pictures
Director: John Erick Dowdle
Screenplay: John Erick Dowdle and Drew Dowdle
Starring: Perdita Weeks, Ben Feldman, Edwin Hoge, François Civil, Marion Lambert, Ali Marhyar and Cosme Castro
Rated R / 1 hour, 33 minutes
August 29, 2014
(out of four)

The sad thing about As Above, So Below is that it's actually one of the best examples of the found-footage era. If only the script would have cooperated, I'd be praising the film as an inventive take on a format that has largely run its course.

And to a degree, it's still worthy of praise, if only because it recognizes the value of subjectivity that similarly filmed movies so often take for granted. As the MacGuffin-heavy narrative moves forward, each character is equipped with a camera attached to his or her headlamp, as they traverse the Catacombs in Paris' underground. There's an additional handheld camera as well, the conceit being that a documentary is being made for posterity.

At first this seems like just a common-sense way for writer/director John Erick Dowdle to keep things varied from a visual perspective, so he's not constantly trying (or, in the case of so many found-footage efforts, hardly trying at all) to justify the presence of the camera. He smartly gets the contrivance out of the way - they're all wearing cameras on their heads, and that's that, let's move on.

But what we discover as the story presses on is that it's not just a smart logistical technique, but the key to the film's hidden premise. What begins as a search for the fabled philosopher's stone actually ends up being a dreamlike descent into the subconscious of each character. Each camera - each individual point-of-view - is representative of a subjective interpretation of the film's events. Even beyond that, the characters' various memories actually create and shape the experience for everyone else. We need the multiple cameras because each of the characters' psyches - the personal relevance of what they're seeing, and their reactions to it - are what it's ultimately all about.

With the no-frills found-footage subgenre in particular, we're accustomed to seeing a supposedly unvarnished, raw view of "real" events, but this is one of the only examples I've seen that uses the format in a way that rejects the presumption of reality.

Now, to be perfectly fair, this is also where As Above, So Below abandons any sense of logic to its premise. After all, regardless of what each person is experiencing in these Catacombs, it's not as if a subjective viewpoint would be captured by the camera sitting atop his or her head. The cameras aren't exactly hard-wired into the characters' subconscious minds. You could make the case that it may have been more effective to simply present the subjective points of view without the contrivance of the attached cameras. In fact, I may be talking myself into that argument even as I write this.

But no, no - with the aforementioned caveat in mind, I'll accept the film as it is, aesthetic discrepancies and all. Because regardless of its logic, the film really does do a nice job creating a disorientingly nightmarish sense of place - a dreamspace in which Dowdle can mix and match points of view as he sees fit.

The more time we spend underground, the more urgent each individual experience becomes and the less the supposed plot matters.

It all begins innocently enough, as our central heroine Scarlett (Perdita Weeks) commissions a few friends and specialists to sneak into the secret nooks of the Parisian Catacombs in search of the mythical stone that may or may not hold the secret to immortality. It's all a bit Indiana Jones-ish in its setup, with Scarlett charmingly flouting any rule necessary in order to continue her quest for a historical secret that her father spent his whole life chasing.

Scarlett - professor, historical scholar, alchemy enthusiast, prodigal student, and devotee of the off-the-shoulder look that I wholeheartedly endorse - will stop at nothing to find what she wants, even if it means leaving a friend stuck in a Turkish prison for a week while she chases down a lead. That friend is George (Ben Feldman, he of the missing nipple on Mad Men), a fellow scholar and tinkerer (he breaks into places and fixes things, like clock towers that have been out of order for decades) who reluctantly follows Scarlett into the Catacombs on what he presumes to be a wild goose chase.

Also along for the ride are her documentarian friend Benji (Edwin Hodge), and a group of Catacomb experts (like outlaw tour guides) led by the egomaniacal Papillon (François Civil).

Scarlett claims to have a map showing previously unknown, deliberately hidden tunnels that may hold the secret she's looking for. But the more clues they follow and the deeper they go, the more unsteady their sense of reality becomes. Unexplained anachronisms, visions and noises become commonplace. Objects and people appear that have no business being there. Each character's past becomes fodder for a hellish nightmare that gets more and more abstract the more Scarlett and Co. try to engage, explain or control their surroundings.

Dowdle handles most of that effectively, and As Above begins to resemble Silent House in ways both thematic and structural. But the hiccups are in the screenplay, which is seemingly at odds with the more surreal impulses of the direction. Memory plays a central role in the second half of the film - the central role, in fact - but the screenplay, co-written by Dowdle and his brother Drew, does a poor job reconciling those details with the characters. And when it does address them, it does so with perfunctory exposition that strips the story of its dreamlike effect. There's a lot to like about As Above, So Below, but its inability to balance its surrealism with the (unnecessary) need for overt explanation is what tips the scales for me, particularly because of the way the story resolves itself. Dowdle tries to corral the characters' collective subconscious in order to give the story a pat resolution and a firm meaning. Sorry, but dreams become a lot less interesting the minute you try to pinpoint every detail and explain everything them all away.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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