By MEAGHAN CLOHESSY
The failure of John Erik Dowdle’s horror flick As Above, So Below can be told through trailers. The first trailer, shown in theaters, depicts a psychological thriller, each character facing nightmarish vestiges of their dark pasts in the Parisian catacombs. The mock-documentary structure is not new for the genre, but the Milton-esque theme of ‘hell is in the mind of the beholder’ brings intrigue to the horror cliché. The second trailer, seen on television, removes the psychological component in favor of jump scares. The question remained as to whether Dowdle’s film would travel the psychological path or fall in line with films like Insidious and The Conjuring. The best answer Dowdle gives during this 90-minute haunted house ride is a resounding, “let me get back to you on that.”
The film centers on Scarlet (Perdita Wiley), an academic continuing her deceased father’s search for the Sorcerer’s Stone. She employs the help of her former lover George (Ben Feldman), her cameraman Benji (Edwin Hodje), and an urchin named Pap (Francois Civil) in order to penetrate the catacombs of Paris in order to seek the stone. During this journey, they uncover a portal to Hell, populated with their own personal demons. Promising too much for simple scares, the film delivers nothing more than a case of cinematic nausea.
Creating hell as imagined by seven different characters requires taking time to understand them. Audiences need an emotional connection between themselves and the characters, so that each perception of Hell is equally poignant and gripping. Dowdle secures the luxury of pacing to establish this connection, since the group does not enter the catacombs until halfway through the film. Yet Dowdle completely neglects backstory for most of his characters. The three French youths serving as guides are reduced to the stereotypes of gangster, goth, and punk. Benji serves little purpose beyond positioning the camera, despite being regarded as a friend by Scarlet and George. Even Scarlet’s backstory of her suicidal father feels cheap and rushed. George’s guilt over the death of his young brother does sustain our sympathies, but that could be the residual affect from Feldman’s character from Mad Men. Only three of the seven characters experience the labyrinth of Hell, reducing the other four to external carnage. When Hell appears for Scarlet, George, and Pap, audiences never really understand why they should care for their journey of repentance. They miss critical pieces of the characters’ stories and personality, elements Dowdle strangely refuses to share.
Structural discordance adds to the fragmentation. Dowdle sets up the film as a documentary focused on Scarlet’s journey for the stone, taking her from England to Iran to Paris. However, the film loses the realism attached to horror ‘documentaries.’ Angles impossible for a single crewman are suddenly accomplished. Benji rationalizes these angles by equipping the group with pen cameras, but these shots take place well before he installs them. The picture quality is stunning considering the cameras are submerged underwater, beaten up, and dropped hundreds of feet. Character reaction also looks unnatural. When Scarlet and George reunite, they engage in a quarrel centered upon a disastrous trip in Turkey– an argument that would have been curbed in front of a real documentary camera. The robotic acting restricts the body language and natural dialogue needed to create the documentary space. The film exudes a reality show atmosphere, forcing characters into particular situations to retain tension. Achieving realism becomes less essential and more of a suggestion. Dowdle’s story would have been better suited for a standard film, but because the Paranormal Activity franchise returned the mock documentary to horror glory, Dowdle played to the current trend rather than challenging it. No matter which trailer one views, boredom replaces initial captivation.
If you want a film about caves, claustrophobia, and the supernatural, you’re better off unearthing your VHS copies of The Blair Witch Project and The Descent. I’m sure they have been gathering dust.