TR Review: Is It Hell? I Dunno. As Above, So Below

They did the upside down thing in Devil too

It’s not hard to make me freak out watching people get stuck in tight spaces deep underground, and I suspect I’m not alone – there’s a reason The Descent is so popular with the people who’ve actually seen it, and it isn’t just scantily clad babes in miner hats. It’s like putting a ton of jalapenos on your sandwich – you know full well they’re going to burn and take over the thing, and it makes it harder to tell whether the sandwich beneath is actually any good.

I’m pretty sure As Above, So Below is quite stupid when it comes to the screenwriting, but the camerawork and editing is so effective that I felt close to a panic attack most of the time anyway. If that’s what you’re into, you could do worse.

The movie comes to us from John Erick Dowdle, the director of Quarantine (a.k.a. Rec Remake) and Devil, both of which managed quite effective scares. He cowrites with brother Drew, and I’d like to suggest they hire a non-family collaborator next time, since the only time their screenplay logic was completely solid was when they did a close remake of a better film.

It’s hard to get thoroughly into the movie’s problems without spoiling, but there are plenty of details to pick at along the way – starting with the fact that it’s a found-footage movie in which everyone’s hallucinations are captured on video. Unless they’re not hallucinations, in which case we must assume that whoever finds the footage will become a millionaire for having visual proof of the existence of Hell.

If you want the quick version, this red-band trailer basically synopsizes the entire film, including third-act reveals, in three minutes:

Perdita Weeks is Scarlett, an explorer out to continue her recently deceased dad’s quest for the Philosopher’s Stone, which turns out not to be inside the Mirror of Erised where we all assumed it was, but in the Catacombs under Paris. Since the regular old Catacombs are pretty easily accessible to the public, the area where the stone must be hidden is of course a secret area – one that can only be accessed by hiring a bunch of disposable French people who know all the off-map tunnels. And Scarlett knows that they know all that because a totally random stranger told her so.

Oh, and she also has a bunch of clues that were translated from runes into perfect, rhyming English. Go with it.

So Perdita, her maybe-ex George (Ben Feldman) and token freaking-out black guy Benji (Edwin Hodge) head for the entrance less taken with their super-trustworthy strange French guides, only to get attacked by the police, from whom they run into the tunnels. As they progress deeper in, each time finding video-game like clues to open the next door, the way back becomes more and more blocked, and they find themselves going in weird circles and into chambers that are mirror images of the previous ones. Though there’s a really confusing mix of Jewish, Egyptian and Christian mythology at work, the implication becomes that they’re entering Hell – which, like the afterlife in Joel Schumacher’s Flatliners, tends to taunt you with your biggest traumatic secret. That, and carnivorous stone monsters and creepy demon things.

The Dowdles end up throwing so many threats at our characters by the end – disorientation and monsters and hallucinations (the captured-on-video kind, remember) and insane people, oh my – that it makes you wonder if they really thought through any kind of backstory, or just said screw it, we’ll throw in this, then this, then this. At one point, a character has to backtrack significantly and speeds through previous obstacles with ease – it’s like the person has become Mario with the invincibility star, and I can’t wait for an enterprising fan to rescore the sequence with this music:

For Legendary, known for huge-budget epics like Godzilla and Pacific Rim, I can only assume this ultra-low budget, no-stars, found-footage flick represents an attempt to balance out the ledger and bring down the “average” cost of their films. It’s a nice idea, but even when playing and paying with what amounts to loose change, it helps to get the story right first. That the Dowdles made me extremely uncomfortable in the right way attests to the fact that they know how to shoot a movie. They still need to prove that they can write a great one.