"As Above, So Below": "The Goonies" suddenly got really dark.
“As Above, So Below”, from the director of “Quarantine” (2008) and “Devil” (2010), John Erick Dowdle, has become one of my new favorite horror flicks. This is not to say that the film isn’t wrought with irrationality and unintentional comedic moments, but what is important is its sheer ability to entertain until its pretty phenomenal finish. Did you think less of the entertainment value of “Evil Dead” simply because the gore consisted mostly of milk and pretty bad make-up effects? I think not!
Even though the T-rex is locked in the cargo hold and there is no other threat on deck, did we question “The Lost World: Jurassic Park II” when the crew of the crashed ship were clearly eaten by a dinosaur? No! Because when the police officer investigating responds to the question “Where’s the crew?” with a nauseous “All over the place,” we’re like, hell yeah!
Perhaps John Erick Dowdle hasn’t made something that’s logically sound but, perhaps the best part is not knowing exactly why things happened and letting your imagination fill in the blanks. And then there are other parts that are pretty much just plot holes you can either quibble about or just sit back and enjoy the highly ridiculous ride.
In “Grave Encounters” (2011), its never really made clear how its possible that the spirits of the hospital are literally able to stop the sun from rising so their victims inside are trapped forever in darkness. The best part is knowing that’s a physically impossible thing and reveling in the awesomeness of the idea.
Dowdle makes these ideas of wonderment come to mind in his most recent horror film. His last relative success in the box office was “Quarantine” (2008), the American remake of the Spanish horror film “REC”, made the year before.
The story-lines parallel each other, they both use the shaky hand-held camera technique, the scary moments and memorable scary figures are exactly the same (ie. the daughter of Hannibal Lecter and Gumby’s white anorexic cousin in the attic).
The only thing though, Jaume Balaguero and Paco Plaza did it better. Diving into why that’s true is a thesis paper of its own.
Dowdle uses the same shaky hand-held camera technique to give you the perspective of people in a hopeless situation. Of course, this technique can be done too thoroughly to create an effect that leaves the audience feeling more nauseous than scared, “The Blair Witch Project” (1999) being an obvious example. But when it's done well with a balance of shaking and focus, a horror movie like “As Above, So Below”, can be contrived.
The plot runs the course of a combination of movies; “National Treasure” (2004) meets “The Descent” (2005) meets “The Da Vinci Code” (2006). Is there crucial information found on the back of an old historic piece and a treasure hunting aspect? Check. Connection to religion, and conflict between religion and science? Check. Do a bunch of cave explorers get stuck beneath the earth and just have to keep going down into the depths of, literally, Hell? Check.
In a nutshell, the story is that of Scarlett (Perdita Weeks), an alchemist-historian, quadrilingualist, archeologist in search of the missing piece of her father’s studies. She manages to convince an Aramaic speaking clock fixer (Ben Feldman), three French cave explorers and an amateur documentary film maker interested in her quest to go down into the catacombs beneath France.
Predictably, what could have been a lovely stroll through a cemetery of thousands of unmarked graves turns into a terror-filled stampede in the only direction left to go, down. Of course, you know this will happen. The director understands this, however, it's the twists and turns of the ride down and the unpredictability of the film’s finish that makes it worth while.
When all is said and done though, that Scarlett sure knows how to use her extensive alchemist historian knowledge and bad-ass kickboxing skills to mow down rock demons and quell helping hands in a river of blood. And then she gained healing powers? It doesn’t make a lot of sense, but its still cool.
Just like the part in “Frozen” where princess Elsa learns she has the ability to create life with her snow powers and doesn’t think to just create an army of Olaf minions to take over the world.
The screen writing was something Spielberg might have been able to produce when he was maybe thirteen, but hey, it had its classic entertaining self-explanatory question moments.
For instance, when a century year old ceiling beneath the earth begins to crack above the crew, and you hear someone say, “Is that bad?” there is a moment where you pause and know that character should die next.
The order of the deaths isn’t necessarily traditional, for instance, the black guy didn’t die first. But they sure made it clear that the he wasn’t making it out alive. He died second.
Was it really clear why certain people died while others lived? Not really. But you certainly remember how they died when you leave the theater, and that can be just as important.
Of course, Dowdle preaches the importance of repenting for wrongdoing and telling someone how you really feel, before it's too late. For instance, the moment when you’re aware knock-off dementors are about to swallow your soul, that’s probably the best time to tell someone that the random week-long fling you had with them in Turkey was the best time of your life.
Didn't you guys learn from "Speed" (1994) and it's all-too forgotten sequel, "Speed 2," that relationships that start under intense circumstances never last?
Though the film is peppered with, to say the least, interesting filming choices, the ideas presented are actually pretty cool, and reminiscent of what made “The Da Vinci Code” and “National Treasure” so much fun to watch. Maybe you didn’t really know which historical moment the characters were referencing, and maybe you only caught the last three words of the sentence, but boy did it feel cool knowing you just helped discover something mind-blowing.
The interweaving of alchemist theories, referencing Dante’s Inferno, translating ancient symbols and Aramaic sayings made you feel closer to the treasure. Century old phrases and biblical warnings were put to use, like Dante’s phrase above the gates of hell, “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here”. And then they crawled on their bellies into hell.
I mean, come on! The linking of Biblical certainties of the end to the utterly screwed situation these people found themselves in was at the very least exciting.
Admittedly, most people gave “As Above, So Below” some pretty negative comments, but I still say, give it a chance. Perhaps the effects won’t leave you stunned or scared stiff, but hey, some of what happens is certainly a surprise if nothing else.