As Above, So Below (2014)

★★★

As Above So Below PosterDirector: John Erick Dowdle

Release Date: August 29th, 2014 (UK & US)

Genre: Adventure; Horror; Mystery

Starring: Perdita Weeks, Ben Feldman

“They’d have to catch me first,” Scarlett (Perdita Weeks) says near the beginning of this faux-documentary horror outing. She’s talking about the consequences of illegally sneaking into places, or the Catacombs beneath Paris to be more precise. Scarlett is a student studying archaeological formations and symbolic patterns and, having found something called the Rose Key during a dangerous expedition in Iran, she’s now desperate to get her hands on Nicolas Flamel’s philosopher’s stone (apparently nobody at Hogwarts answers the phone).

She bands together a ragtag bunch of urban explorers including cameraman Benji (Edwin Hodge) and her reluctant, might-be-mightn’t-be boyfriend George (Ben Feldman) who is still a bit miffed at Scarlett for abandoning him to go relic hunting a while back. Before we get to the scary underground part, there’s a lot of translation gibberish that goes on. Putting her education to good use, our lead scampers around Paris examining odd objects and deciphering hieroglyphic-esque language.

It’s an unnecessary history lesson that doesn’t really add anything to the remainder of the movie, nor is it all that interesting. Scarlett, Benji and George dart across museums (maybe it was just one) as the film strives to pick up some early momentum, but it’s a bit wearisome. The dialogue at this point is uninspired too — at one point Scarlett rhetorically asks if she looks like a tourist, trying to emphasise that her self-perceived non-touristy appearance suggests she isn’t up to anything. But she does look like a tourist, and she quite plainly is up to something.

This fairly ponderous opening act has much in common with the first half of Bigfoot horror Willow Creek, and much like Bobcat Goldthwait’s film, As Above, So Below kicks into gear when its misguided pawns reach their congested destination. You will die if you run out of light or water in the Catacombs, or if you get hurt, we are informed by the group’s more advanced Catacomb explorers. Heading down into the blackness sounds like a great idea then.

Thankfully, this is a horror movie and the characters are all dumb enough to genuinely think descending into dark cavernous ruins is a great idea. All except yep-they’re-definitely-getting-back-together-again George, whose previous claustrophobic endeavours have rendered him resentful of cramped spaces. He spends a lot of time ruling out his involvement, but ends up following the group all the way to the entrance anyway and then, through a bit of hullabaloo, finds himself in another cramped space.

The confined setting almost immediately generates a very primitive longing for air among the characters, and we even occasionally get caught up in its uneasy potential. “People who go in this tunnel don’t come out,” says the troupe’s experienced leader of sorts, and of course they’re subsequently forced into said tunnel via some wall-shifting tomfoolery. You do get the sense that director John Erick Dowdle, who has experience in both found footage and claustrophobic horror with Quarantine and Devil, could have spent more time attempting to wear us out.

The Descent is an obvious inspiration — there’s a clear homage moment towards the end involving a river of blood — and that film succeeds because it works exceedingly hard to get under the viewer’s skin. The Descent’s scare-factor isn’t necessarily born out of the arrival of its cave-dwelling beasts. It is scary because, no matter how vociferously you scream at the television, the people on screen are clearly going deeper into the abyss with no foreseeable way out.

This film spends a bit of time conveying that trapped-ness effectively; the found footage aspect is a positive influence, enforcing a natural tightness that in most other cases would frustrate viewers. Although it tries hard to steer clear of jump scares — Dowdle and his co-writing brother Drew should be commended for avoiding that lazy route — it doesn’t hammer home the characters’ overarching struggle as well as The Descent. This might be to do with the frequent interludes of ancient word scrabble that are tonally hokey and encourage respite.

For those who have seen The Borderlands, the same ‘corridor of uncertainty’ conclusion to that movie can be found spliced throughout As Above, So Below. Peculiarity is in the air, and Scarlett et al are often as unaware as we are regarding the strange events. Though the philosopher’s stone stuff is generally silly, when Dowdle strikes the correct balance between mysticism and realism the film takes a turn for the creepy. Objects that appear at random are unsettling not just because they’re in a place they shouldn’t be, but also because they’re in some way connected to the group. An errant piano has the same broken key as one of the party’s childhood instruments, a revelation wrought in subtle terror.

The characters are secondary to the spooky goings-on which is an unfortunate genre norm. Perdita Weeks and Ben Feldman are fine if unspectacular as the ostensible leads, both amiable enough. Though, at times it does feel like the duo and their mates have watched too many generic horrors — events that should shock them don’t for some reason. Someone dies and Scarlett declares, “I can’t bring back the dead, sorry,” with the same nonchalant detachment a waiter would convey when apologising for the lack of tomato ketchup at his restaurant.

People inevitably begin dropping like flies, which is fine. It is a horror movie after all and death is written in the Horror Movie Constitution. In a somewhat surreal turn of events, the ending manages to be both aggravating and refreshing. As Above, So Below starts off on shaky ground, stuck in a preparatory rut for longer that it ought to be. When the shaky ground finally is behind (or above) us, there’s a lot to like.

As Above So Below - Cast

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Universal Pictures

The Borderlands (2013)

★★★

The Borderlands PosterDirector: Elliot Goldner

Release Date: August 23rd, 2013 (UK Frightfest)

Genre: Horror; Mystery

Starring: Gordon Kennedy, Robin Hill, Aidan McArdle

Elliot Goldner brings a heap of diligence to his directorial debut. The Borderlands is the Brit’s first venture behind the camera, the outing a horror flick that opts for patience over pillaging. Goldner manages the atmosphere well and his film builds to a genuinely creepy crescendo as a result. But the ingredients aren’t all that original, nor are they universally receptive. It is tough to root for obnoxious characters and tougher still to engage in such a familiar situation; we slot into the misty West Country, our time split between a haunted church and flaming sheep. Persevere, though, and be rewarded.

Having been summoned by the local priest, Vatican paranormal investigators Deacon (Gordon Kennedy) and Mark (Aidan McArdle) find themselves trying to disprove a plethora of mysterious happenings. They are joined by Gray (Robin Hill) who, despite being non-religious, sees more weight in the ghostly declarations than his colleagues. That is until what is perceived to be coincidental gradually grows stranger.

The first thing to note is The Borderlands’ lack of originality. This is no spectacular deviation from the horror norm, certainly not in terms of character or overarching story. Candles moving without provocation, noises emanating from walls, a rural location. The characters too, divided by scepticism and belief, are more or less conventional. Deacon, portrayed fairly well by Gordon Kennedy, is the moody Scot bearing a mysterious secret that is no doubt disquietingly aligned to the current job. He won’t share it though, and instead we must succumb to generic small talk that does nothing for the characters. Discussions enveloped in weird histories sort of add to the film’s simmering tension but retread old ground in content.

A beginning that is at best innocuous trundles over into annoying territory the longer our resident tech guy Gray is on screen. You’ll recognise him as the tech guy because the tech guy is always the offbeat one, harmlessly immature and progressively frustrating. Gray laughs at place names and rustles crisp packets in church. “Food, cleanliness and a little bit of naughty,” is one of his more egregious lines. And just on the off chance you missed all of that, we also see him also partaking in a lot of webcam installation. Robin Hill plays Gray without any real panache but the performance serves its purpose. They all do — Luke Neal is perhaps the most efficient as Father Crellick. The problem is that these people are not the most likeable bunch. Mark arrives later on and completes the undesirable investigative trio, he a bit of a bumbler who objects to almost anything. By the time the scary stuff arises, we don’t really care too much for anyone’s safety. (Though, admittedly, the film overcomes this issue in the end.)

After a fairly average, and arguably quite boring, opening half hour — one that occasionally plays out like a peculiarly mundane episode of Big Brother — Goldner amps up the menace. Shouting matches emerge sparingly but time is most often filled by a growing sense of risk. Patience is the film’s most effective employee; the director never panics despite a narrative that is somewhat uneventful, at least in horror terms. The creaky characters become less creaky because the film no longer wholesomely relies on their interactive antics. Dialogue that may have manifested as outlandish beforehand gains a degree of importance, particularly as the end nears. (“That’s nature for you Deacon, big stuff eating little stuff”). By the time the final sequence plays out we are just about glued to the screen in an ocular concoction of fear and intrigue. It is an ambiguous conclusion, but not an alienating one.

The Borderlands’ technical aspects deserve credit too. In between scenes, the camera likes to pull back and take in the spooky country surroundings, every so often reminding us of the characters’ vulnerability due to their presence in a relatively secluded area. A mountain looms in the background with grey, murky clouds swirling overhead relaying somewhat of a foreboding nod. The gloomy cinematography ushers forth a landscape that frequently becomes a character in and of itself. Goldner, who also wrote the piece, is savvy when it comes to his use of the found footage element. Cameras are mounted on walls and characters wear Google Glass-esque lens recorders, covering all bases. Subsequently, what we’re presented with is a hybrid of found footage and classic direction that works well.

Clocking in at just under 90 minutes, The Borderlands is a fairly short film. It squeezes as much horror juice and brooding anticipation out of its runtime as possible and does so without ever revealing too much. Held down by shaky characters and a largely unoriginal story, the outing — though admirable in its atmospheric quality — hinges on a strong conclusion. It delivers.

The Borderlands

Images credit: BBFC, Gallery Hip

Images copyright (©): Metrodome Distribution