As Above, So Below (John Erick Dowdle, 2014)
The first John Erick Dowdle movie I saw was 2008’s Quarantine, one of the few American remakes of foreign horror films that’s actually worth your time. I then went back and hunted down his previous film, The Poughkeepsie Tapes, and between the two of them, I came to the conclusion that the seeds of celluloid greatness lie dormant somewhere within John Erick Dowdle. Every movie he has released since has been increasingly frustrating for me; they are never disappointing—I have never failed to be at least entertained by a movie he’s directed—but he never actually gets there. With As Above, So Below, I think those seeds are starting to germinate. Don’t get me wrong, this is not a Ti West-like metamorphosis from genre hack to wunderkind in the space of six months, but it is a step in the right direction.
Plot: Scarlett (Prowl‘s Perdita Weeks) is a polymath—the first scene of the main film, which comes after a Raiders of the Lost Ark-style prologue that’s great for getting the adrenaline pumping, is Scarlett standing outside an archaeological dig introducing herself with a list of credentials longer than her purported age; cameraman Benji (The Purge‘s Edwin Hodge) even remarks “that’s a lot of credentials for someone your age” when she’s done. She has taken up the quest her father was on, before he committed suicide: the quest for the philosopher’s stone. Yes, everyone from Harry Potter to Aleister Crowley is now joined by another seeker and her loyal cameraman. During the prologue, Scarlett found a legendary artifact that will allow her to translate the sigils on the tombstone of equally legendary alchemist Nicolas Flamel (in popular legend, the only human to have ever actually created a philosopher’s stone) into Aramaic. Sine she doesn’t speak it, she has to convince her old friend George (Cloverfield‘s Ben Feldman) to help her. We get some dark intimations about the last time he did so, but she’s charming and manipulative and gets her way. (Don’t feel too bad for George; he pulls the same trick on a museum guide a few scenes later.) When the clues point them to the catacombs that lie underneath Paris, Scarlett and Benji take a trip down there with a map they’ve sketched out, discover the basic location of what they’re looking for, and are told by a guy who’s hanging around sketching a wall to go looking for a guy nicknamed Papillon, who can get them where they want to be. Soon enough, they meet up with Papillon (Elles‘ François Civil) and his urban-explorer friends Souxie (Marion Lambert in her screen debut) and Zed (Zero Dark Thirty‘s Ali Marhyar). The six of them—George doesn’t do subterranean treks, but has agreed to help the party get where they’re going and then coordinate from above-ground—head into an abandoned railway tunnel that provides an alternate entrance to the catacombs. A series of misadventures lands all of them, including George, in a chamber with no way out except down. And that’s when things start getting really weird.
At the base of As Above, So Below is an extremely intelligent script; John and partner/co-writer Drew either did more research for this than they ever have before or (more likely) have a long-standing and enduring love for the source material. And what that source material is is as clear to me as it was opaque to the people I saw it with (and, seemingly, most reviewers): Dante Alighieri. Yep, As Above, So Below is another, looser than I’ve ever seen before, attempt to translate the Inferno to the silver screen. Papillon’s old friend Le Taupe (Los Malagradecideos‘ Cosme Castro)—who, we are told, has been living in the catacombs for years—is the Virgil to Scarlett’s Dante. And, of course, the way out is down; Dante had to go all the way to the bottom and meet the devil before he could advance to the second book of the Commedia. So do our travelers. (In fact, Scarlett barely misses mentioning Alighieri by name at one point.) Sorry if that’s a spoiler—given the film’s trailer, I don’t believe it is.
As well, while there is no scene in this movie as claustrophobic as that scene in The Descent, in As Above, So Below the claustrophobia is more a pervasive feeling. The Descent loaded it on in little tunnels between massive caverns. These folks spend very little time in little chambers, much less massive caverns. Well over half this movie takes place in hallways, some of which are slightly smaller than Benji’s hips. (I will say that there’s one scene where Dowdle was trying to work that Descent angle. While it’s definitely claustrophobic, it’s defused by some possibly-unintentional humor.) I know, the whole shakycam-found-footage thing is really played out now, but Dowdle, as he does every time he uses it, at least found some inventive ways to use it effectively. The same is true of his use of chiaroscuro, which in this film may be as good as David Lynch’s (and Lynch is the current American master of chiaroscuro). Sure, he’s using it mostly for cheap jumps, but it adds up. And those cheap jumps work really well in this movie. Like the original When a Stranger Calls well. The first time Benji’s helmet light goes on the fritz may be the most perfectly-timed moment in the movie.
A quick side note on understanding the last thirty minutes of the movie: it’s pretty straightforward, including the ending, but much of the audience around me seemed somewhat confused. There’s a point where Scarlett explains the title of the movie to Papillon’s crew while explaining a medieval painting on the wall. Okay, once you get there, pay very close attention to what she says the second time they see that symbol, and keep it in mind for the rest of the movie, and all of it will make sense.
As far as the frustrating part…I started off by talking about the intelligent script. I think parts of it got left on the cutting room floor. There were a lot of pieces I ended up wanting more information on (like the scar on Papillon’s hand, which ends up feeling like a plot device rather than the character-building angle it obviously was in some draft). As Above, So Below fits the current ninety-minutes-and-out model of American filmmaking, coming in at a shade over ninety-two. It could have easily been twice as long just based on the parts that obviously aren’t there—the history between Papillon and Zed, Souxie’s entire character. I suspect there is a great deal more to Le Taupe; I think at one point he may have been a major character. (And the possible interplay between the butterfly and the mole? Where were they going with that?) In fact, I can tie so many things about this movie that felt abbreviated, short, or mediocre to possible editing cuts or overzealous script revisions that I’d be willing to toss out a blanket statement that a director’s cut, if it puts back in at least an hour of footage, might be one of the best movies of 2014. What we got fits right in line with Dowdle’s previous output. It is an entertainment, and a pretty good one, but you may well find yourself more annoyed by the pieces that aren’t there than appreciative of the ones that are. ***
Red band trailer.