As Above, So Below (2014)
The only way out is down.
Why do I keep watching found footage movies? I can only imagine that somewhere inside me I still believe that their is this completely untapped potential that each movie of the type I watch might be the one to be the Highlander or one ring to rule them all. Well, I can't say it's particularly a great hope to hold onto, but As Above walks calmly into the circle and throws off it's gloves to try and impress. Can this foray into the french underground prove to come out on top, or way below any expectations?
So, in my mind our story here takes part in two acts: the "Indiana Jones" act and the "Catacombs of Scary" part. It should be noted that the later name isn't necessarily indicative of actual fear inducing levels of pants-browning, but is simply a descriptor of the fact that the focus shifts to being a horror movie at that point. In act one, we experience our 'hero' lead female on a quest for the legendary philosopher's stone - a journey that her father was on before he committed suicide. Needless to say, she's astoundingly devoted to her search to prove that her father wasn't crazy - devoted enough to go to places where if she were to be caught she would be executed, on top of the fact that if she goes past a certain time chances are she will be either blown up or sealed in the chambers of her clues. After escaping with her life, she returns to France where she picks up a documentary cameraman, and the two go searching for her friend that speaks the seemingly one language she doesn't to translate her finds.
Pulling in some favors, the friend gets her some 'alone time' with a dead famous alchemists tombstone, where they can apply the now-translated cipher to get more clues. As it turns out, the "key" is still missing, and we get to see some gnarly chemist-grade fun to reveal it. After mulling it over, the group decides the location of the stone is below the man's grave site (way below it), and figure the best way to get to the location is going to be by going through the Catacombs of France (real life scary place, by the way). While on a tour, a mysterious vanishing lad tells them a name and place to find a "guide", and as they go to meet said person they keep noticing one strange lady being creepy leaving where they are going. It takes some convincing (and a promise of treasure) in order to convince the man to get his crew to lead them into the catacombs - a rather illegal activity. I mention that, because it's the important reason that when cops show up and they all try to escape, the one character who doesn't want anything to do with going in there ends up having to.
Now that they are inside the tunnels, things switch to a primarily scary mode. We find out that a certain tunnel is "cursed" or "evil" or whatever, and the Mole (a guy who basically lived in the tunnels) went in there once and never came back. They decide it's not a good idea to go in there, and instead intend to go the "long way", which after some mild panic and a cave in results in them actually being right back where they started, and pretty much having to go the dark and scary way. Creepy things start happening, including running into the man who is supposed to have died in there, a telephone ringing, and an exact copy of a piano from one of the party's past. As they proceed ever onward and downward, they run into some more Jones-esque puzzles requiring knowledge of history and alchemical sayings to carry on. The treasure room is found, as is the stone, but things quickly go to crap when the happy spelunking crew tries to get at the treasure and sets off a trap. The survivors then need to make their way through the "As Below" section of the haunted tunnels of evil, where everything is turned up to 11 on the "want to kill you" factor. Will they make it out alive? Should they make it out alive?
First thing first - we have to talk about the elephant in the room, being "found footage." In a found footage movie, there is one largely important factor to keep the user within the movie-scape: consistency in delivery of the "found footage" format. Regardless of how dumb the plot, or how great the acting, if a found footage film missteps it's handling of "everything you see is a recorded event from someone's camera" then a disconnect can occur between the user and the movie, and as soon as that happens it becomes incredibly easy to start picking things apart instead of just enjoying the thrill-ride. Now, for me this happened a few times during this movie - once towards the beginning when the camera was positioned on the lead characters shoulder like the Predator's plasma caster, and later on when a character is shown to not have a head camera anymore - followed by head-level camera POV from that character. That being said, it's only made worse by characters with headgear having POV shots from them, only to find that character dead by the end of the movie - meaning that footage could not have been "found" for us to have seen. What this means to me, as the viewer, is that this entire thing could have been shot like a normal movie and spared us the shaky, disorienting, and sometimes nauseating shots offered by the "convulsion cams are frightening!" textbook.
That being said, effects work - what there is of it - is actually handled pretty well here, and the reasoning behind the main "cameraman" is more logical than a lot of other genre movies ("it's a documentary!"). Things from sewers of blood, crumbling walls, hidden passages, and creepy monsters are all pulled off pretty well - even if within some of the moments things are rather... inconsistent (falling feet down turning into falling head first, for example). The headlamps all facing slightly up makes great sense from a "don't blind the viewer" perspective, although I honestly can't say it makes sense to me that you would be more worried about the stuff above your head than where your feet would be landing while deep underground - but I'm sure someone who is an actual spelunker would be better for that kind of information. There's really just one moment in which the special effects kind of falter, and that's just because the scale of it makes it goofy when everything else has been less super-crazy-natural.
Acting is actually pretty decent here, and the amount of over-acting and typical non-sensory acting associated with found footage is relatively low. Yeah, there are definite moments where you will wonder why it's going on for so long - and it's unfortunate that I figure that's just part of the territory at this point - but for the most part a good deal of the movie feels like other fun adventure movies with a more annoying camera perspective. For the thinker types, you can pick apart all kinds of meanings of the stuff that happens down in the tunnels - I don't really care to think that far into it though. What I can get behind is the ideas of secrets and alchemy, as well as the use of a real-life spooky place as the setting (the French Catacombs). To be honest, the main reason I even watched this was because of the Catacombs and how (from previous stories) I thought it would make for an absolutely awesome setting.
It's not a terrible movie, but it certainly isn't making me like found footage movies any more than I already did. In fact, I feel that the more entertaining parts of the movie actually make me like the found footage format less, since it would have been more enjoyable without the spazz-cam and disconnects caused by the whole "first person" aspects of the film. It starts off feeling rather Indy, which I love, and quickly descends into creepy atmosphere and unfortunate jump scares. If you don't like found footage, stay away from it - but if you can stomach that it's one of those flicks that can be a decent enough rental, although I don't think you'll be running out to buy it any time soon.