Thursday, September 04, 2014

Movie Review: As Above, So Below (2014)


From IMDB:


Miles of twisting catacombs lie beneath the streets of Paris, the eternal home to countless souls. When a team of explorers ventures into the uncharted maze of bones, they uncover the dark secret that lies within this city of the dead. A journey into madness and terror, As Above, So Below reaches deep into the human psyche to reveal the personal demons that come back to haunt us all. Written by John Erick Dowdle and Drew Dowdle (Quarantine, Devil) and directed by John Erick Dowdle, the psychological thriller is produced by Thomas Tull, Jon Jashni, Drew Dowdle and Patrick Aiello. Alex Hedlund serves as the executive producer. - Ratings: 6.2/10 from 2,302 users Metascore: 38/100 Reviews: 34 user | 8 critic | 20 from 

Ratings From Rotten Tomatoes: 

Tomatometer 31% | Average Rating: 4.5/10
Reviews Counted: 52 Fresh: 16 | Rotten: 36 

After an intriguing setup that threatens to claw its way out of found-footage overkill, As Above/So Below plummets into clichéd mediocrity.

Meet Scarlet, she will be your guide and hero throughout this movie. ©Universal Pictures 

What does this casual tunnel rat thinks... (SPOILERS! DUH...)

Well, let’s get some things out of the way first, I’m not a big fan of the Horror genre. I like them fine but I am no connoisseur and I certainly do not watch every horror movie that comes out. The same goes for movies in the found-footage genre, which happens to be mostly in the horror genre. It actually doesn’t matter what genre it is as long as it has a good and believable story, good acting and where everything from visual effects to music complements or enhances each other. The other thing that’s important is that even if it lacks any of those things above it can somehow draw you in and distract your thinking, analytical, criticising mind for the duration of the movie and take you for a fun ride. That’s a good movie. 

So on to the movie at hand, As Above, So Below. If you’ve read the short storyline above or even watched the trailer you probably think this is about some people who venture into the Parisian Catacombs looking for something and somehow end up in a horrifying supernatural underground nightmare. For the most part you’d be right. 

But this movie has loftier notions of itself. Like how every young person with a Youtube account and a ukulele thinks they can be famous doing covers of whatever is at the top of the charts and also believes he/she is different and better than all those other people. But I digress. 

Trying to figure out hidden messages always takes place at night and by sneaking in. ©Universal Pictures 

Right from the get go you’re treated to a view from a camera held by the main protagonist and what you see is a woman staring back at you before it’s shakily turned back onto the main character who then fills you in on where she is and that she’s doing it illegally. All fine and good. But then you go through a market and the camera is apparently mounted on her right shoulder. For someone trying to be discreet in a country where you don’t look like anyone else or even dress like anyone else, I should think walking around with an unusual attachment on your shoulder doesn’t help. So already in the first few minutes you can tell that this is not going to be all that good. Well at least if you’re keeping tabs on what makes sense and not that is. 

So the main protagonist is named Scarlett, she is a historian or something like that. And, if I remember correctly from the movie she has multiple Ph.Ds, one in history or archaeology and another in chemistry and I forget what the other one is. She also speaks 4 languages fluently and 2 ancient ones not so fluently. So a smart and attractive young girl. See a problem yet? As I remember it a Ph.D takes quite a while to obtain, so 3? And she looks so young too. I’m surprised they didn’t give her a Pulitzer or a Nobel too. 

Ok, so back to the opening. She’s in Iran and she’s tracked down the next clue in a puzzle that her father has been chasing all his life until he took his own life. The clue lies down in a network of tunnels that’s apparently scheduled to be blown up just hours after her arrival. She finds what she’s looking for just in the nick of time but still gets caught in the blast. While things are blowing up and she’s frantically trying to escape it she glimpses what appears to be a man hanging on a noose before it all goes dark and smoky. So that’s that.

Can you spot the hidden policeman? They couldn’t. ©Universal Pictures 

Next we’re in Paris and she’s being interviewed on camera for a documentary. We don’t know why or for what but that’s about all you’re going to find out about why she’s on camera. So she’s in Paris to try and get to the next clue but to do that she needs to find a friend. This friend who is named George has a penchant for illegally breaking into old places and fixing their ancient clocks in old bell towers. And, he also reads ancient Aramaic fluently. She needs him to translate what she found back in Iran. So now you find out why she’s in Iran and Paris and what she’s looking for. The Philosopher Stone. 

What’s the Philosopher Stone you say? Well, here’s an excerpt from the Wikipedia page; 

“The philosophers' stone or stone of the philosophers (Latin: lapis philosophorum) is a legendary alchemical substance said to be capable of turning base metals such as lead into gold (chrysopoeia) or silver. It was also sometimes believed to be an elixir of life, useful for rejuvenation and possibly for achieving immortality. For many centuries, it was the most sought-after goal in alchemy. The philosophers' stone was the central symbol of the mystical terminology of alchemy, symbolizing perfection at its finest, enlightenment, and heavenly bliss. Efforts to discover the philosophers' stone were known as the Magnum Opus ("Great Work").[1]” 

It’s actually fascinating stuff and it’s been used as a plot device in many books and movies. 

So back to movie, Scarlett is trying to find the legendary Philosopher Stone in order to prove that her father was right. And her search has led her to Paris and a man whom her father thinks holds the key to where it is, Nicolas Flamel. Nicolas Flamel is an actual person. And he is connected with stories of the Philosopher Stone. So the movie has some factual elements in it. But that’s pretty much it. After you get to the scene where they decipher Flamel’s tombstone and the hidden secret behind it it goes into make-believe mode. The next clue tells them that they need to go to the catacombs.

One policeman jumps them and they all scurry down the hole. ©Universal Pictures 

So off Scarlett goes to the catacombs with Benji the documentarian right on her heels. As she takes a tour of the catacombs and is informed by the tour guide of the sights in it she makes her own observations for the camera and Benji. When she gets to the spot where she believes would lead her to the next clue or actually the actually path to where the stone lies she finds out there is no direct path or opening. So she surmises that there must be another way to get to it. As she’s thinking about this a convenient loiterer tells her that if she wants to get to parts of the catacomb that aren’t on the tour she should find a man named Papillon. He also tells them that he can be found at a club called Le Showcase before disappearing the moment they look away. Convenient, right? 

So of course they believe this disappearing plot mover and all three of them, Scarlett, George and Benji go to the club looking for the famous Papillon. And they find him, but before that Benji makes eye contact with some woman that gives him the creeps. Anyway, they talk to ‘Pap’ and at first he doesn’t believe them but of course Scarlet tells him of the philosopher stone and that it can make gold. She also suggests that they might find treasure. Well, not really suggest but actually says it right up front. And who doesn’t like treasure and gold, right? So off they go. 

The next time you see them they’re in a beat-up van full of climbing gear and other stuff getting to know each other with Benji doing the occasional interview for his documentary. Also, Scarlett tries her best to convince George to come along.

This is Benji, the documentary maker. He’s also the only black guy in the movie. But he isn’t the first to die. Which is nice. ©Universal Pictures 

Now about the catacombs. You find out little facts about it during the tour they take earlier. But briefly, 

“The Catacombs of Paris or Catacombes de Paris are underground ossuaries in Paris, France. Located south of the former city gate (the "Barrière d’Enfer" at today's Place Denfert-Rochereau), the ossuaries hold the remains of about six million people[1] and fill a renovated section of caverns and tunnels that are the remains of historical stone mines.” ~ Wikipedia. 

Fascinating, right? I’ve been fascinated by them for a long time. Imagine, seemingly endless stretches of underground tunnels and caverns, some of them filled with human remains and others with who-knows-what. And there’s always that romantic notion that you’ll wander around and find an undiscovered tunnel or path that leads to an amazing discovery. And the best part is, is that it’s all underneath Paris, one of the world’s most historically and culturally rich cities in the world. 

Anyway, back to the story, up to this point there’s nothing scary or horrifying other than that glimpse from the time she was in the tunnel that blew up. In fact you could say it’s sort of boring. Just lots of facts that lead to the tunnel and what Scarlet believes is the location of the stone somewhere in the catacombs.

This is apparently the entrance to hell. See those markings up there? They sort of say it. ©Universal Pictures 

And to the catacombs they go along with the reluctant George who time and again tells them that he’s not going in with them. Now they’re at the entrance of where Pap says will take them to the location that Scarlet believes the stone is. It’s a small little opening that they’ll have to crawl through. And they crawl through it one by one after Benji gives them special head-mounted lights that also have cameras in them. Now, according to Papillion the entrance they’re about to take is actually illegal and that police sometimes hang around to catch those that try to go in. And although you see no police at all during the walk to the hole in the wall that they’re about to crawl in, just as Scarlett tries to convince George one last time, wouldn’t you know it the police show up. So everyone rushes into the whole to escape the police while the tussle with Pap. Pap of course escapes their clutches and crawls in after them throwing smoke bombs as he does. Why smoke bombs would stop the police I don’t know, but the police of course don’t follow them in or give them chase. Convenient, huh? 

So now were in the catacombs where the scary part is supposed to happen. Except that it doesn’t, not for a while at least. Sure there’s that scene where they hear singing and then observe through a crack a group of women, some topless, painted and dressed in white robes singing some creepy hymn. And that these women were being directed by that woman that Benji spots at the club. Creepy yes, scary no. But one thing they did get right is the feeling of claustrophobia being in that tunnel. So if you don’t like feeling trapped or being in confined in small spaces then this might be the start of things uncomfortable for you. 

Which leads us to their first hurdle. To get to the path that Scarlett believes would lead to the stone Pap tells them they have to crawl through a small opening that’s littered with human bones. When Scarlett points out a blocked tunnel that she believes would cut their travel time significantly Pap tells them the story of a friend who used to wander these very same tunnels and that he would never take that path because he believes that path leads to something dangerous. That friend disappeared some two years never to be found.

There’s a lot of looking back in this movie. ©Universal Pictures 

They crawl through the bones. And find themselves back in the same room. Which now forces them to take the path that leads to something dangerous. 

Okay, so this is when the horror part actually starts. If you thought that I was being a little long winded well guess what, this is the movie. It’s a little long winded. You have to be patient to get to the really scary parts. 

But wait it doesn’t really get scary until they find the philosopher stone which they do. A few creepy things do happen, like they find a piano and hear a phone ringing and when Scarlet picks it up and answers an accusing voice talks to her. But they find Flamel’s room and the stone, and while Scarlett and George are celebrating, Pap and his crew are trying to get to the gold that’s behind some bars. They pull on it and just as they do Scarlett and George yell that it’s a trap and the roof caves in on them. Did I tell you that to get to the room with the stone they were guided by the man that Pap told them disappeared two years ago in the same tunnels? Yeah, a man whom they thought was dead is now guiding them and none of them question him or doubt his state of being or sanity. Sounds stupid? Yes it does.

That’s the symbolic representation of ‘As Above, So Below’. See they mention the title in the movie. ©Universal Pictures 

Now the roof falls on them and one of Pap’s crew gets hurt. Scarlett uses the philosopher stone to heal her. Yes, a magic stone. And the man that was guiding them has disappeared, presumably buried under the rock fall. 

From this point on it’s about them trying to find their way out of the tunnels. As they make their escape they begin to encounter things. They escape the room and go back to the room they came in from and find their guide. He’s just standing there in the dark and when one of the crew come up to him, he grabs her and smashes her head several times on the floor. She’s dead. 

They spot some lights around a corner and when they come to it discover it’s a burning car with a man in it. This is Pap’s regret and the man in the car reaches out and grabs Pap. Pap is dead. Next is Benji who is the last to climb down the rope and just as he’s about to he thinks someone is behind him. You see who it is. Next thing you see is Benji crashing into the ground.

Don’t know who she is but she scares Benji to his death. ©Universal Pictures 

All that’s left is Scarlett, George and the last of Pap’s crew who decides to pick up Benji’s camera to continue his work. Stupid, right? Anyway the three of them make their way and spot a phantom. A hooded phantom. They run only to end up in a cavern where one single chair sits in the middle. As they make their way past it the notice that now the phantom is sitting in that chair. They run. As they run into another tunnel they notice that the tunnel wall has faces, screaming faces and human bodies. As they hug the walls to hide the trapped humans in the wall pops out and grabs them, one bites George on the neck. 

For whatever reason, on the verge of death, George comes to an epiphany. That the stone they took is the wrong one and to find the right one and the way out they need to take it back to the room. This is not thoroughly explain. You just have to go with the flow. So off Scarlett goes back to the room, running through the gauntlet of rock zombies, phantoms, river of blood with hands reaching out trying to drown her. She faces the body of her dead father still hanging on the noose and asks for forgiveness. She succeeds of course and returns. 

They reach a final room with a manhole cover in the middle. It doesn’t open up. They push it down to open it. They’re apparently upside down. So they crawl down into the manhole only to appear a few hundred meters from the club that they found Pap. The end.

Rock Zombies. There be Rock Zombies in the Catacombs. ©Universal Pictures 

That’s it. That’s the movie as I remember it. What is this story about? I haven’t a clue. A search for the stone? Maybe. Is the catacomb a metaphor for hell? Maybe. Is hell about being consumed by regrets if you don’t face them? Then why did Benji and one of Pap’s crew die the way they did? Or are the catacombs itself paranormal and all this is just a coincidence, bad luck on their part? Then why the riddle of the philosopher stone? Why the sudden realization that the stone they took is the wrong one? Why should Scarlett return and be able to heal George by just touching him with no obvious philosopher stone in sight? Is the stone in her? Or did the ordeal of going back to return the rock endow her with the power of the divine as when she explained the symbol for “As Above, So Below” back in Flamel’s room? It all doesn’t make sense and it doesn’t connect to each other. Flamel was an alchemist who supposedly created the philosopher stone, so what does that have to do with phantoms, rock zombies, deadly regrets and the catacombs being the metaphor for hell? Not once was Flamel connected to a cult, accused of being a Satanist or an occultist. So what’s the rational for what they went through? 

I couldn’t think of any. And that’s the problem with this movie for me. Nothing seems to connect to each other to make good sense, to make a good story. Whatever connections they have to each other is tenuous at best. The tricks they use to scare you have been done before and they didn’t do it any better or worse. The only thing I found interesting was their use of sound. That’s it.

This is not a demon or spirit, it’s Scarlett after having a dip in some goo. ©Universal Pictures 

This movie is best enjoyed by leaving your brains in the car where you parked before walking towards the cinema. Scaredy-cats might enjoy it if they can wait long enough for them to get to the catacombs. True horror fans are going to find this mildly amusing. Fans of a good story are going to be disappointed. I know I was. Maybe I was being too critical, too analyzing. I was hoping for an interesting movie as it takes place in the catacombs of Paris. But I was disappointed. Too bad. 

I’d rate this movie 2 out of 5.




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