Saturday, August 30, 2014

As Above So Below: The Alchemist's Quest

As Above So Below: Poster | A Constantly Racing Mind
I am not sure why any sane person would want to descend into the bowels of the earth for any reason.  Written by director John Erick Dowdle ("Quarantine," "Devil") and his brother Drew, "As Above, So Below," follows a group of adventurers into the catacombs of Paris in search of the mythical Philosopher's Stone. Perdita Weeks stars as Scarlett, a young academic who is obsessed with finding the illusive stone. Ben Feldman ("Mad Men") plays George, Scarlett’s language translator and partner in crime. Edwin Hodge ("The Purge") is Benji who is filming this documentary for prosperity. "As Above, So Below" contains plenty of scares as the group ventures deep into the unknown.  

This is a B-horror film in the style of Found Footage, and therefore falls into many of the traps and tropes of this horror sub-genre, such as shaky camera, bad lighting, and plot issues that don't seem to resolve. The film starts as our Laura Croft-like hero films herself as she rides a bus while trying to sneak into Iran. Her goal, is to find ancient writings in Iran's underground, that will eventually help her to decode, a secret message that the legendary European alchemist, Nicolas Flamel left as a pointer to where the great secret of the ages lies hidden. The legendary Philosopher's Stone, lapis philosophorum, is said to turn base metals such as lead into gold (chrysopoeia) or silver. The stone is also allegedly able to heal the sick, a lofty goal to be sure if used to help humanity. 

Scarlett (Weeks), like Jones and Croft, is well schooled, adventurous, sometimes impetuous, and like Laura Croft, very lovely to look at.  Like the two cinematic adventure heroes, Scarlett's father was also an archaeologist and he too was obsessive about finding some ultimate alchemist truth. Smart and pretty, Scarlett also has PhDs in Chemistry, History, and Symbology. Apparently, she also has a bit of a Robert Langston in her DNA as well. George (Feldman) is Scarlett's reluctant companion, and an interpreter of languages, including dead ones. 

Riddles and Rhymes

Along with camera operator Benji (Hodge), the couple deciphers clues found from stone carvings that Scarlett scanned in Iran. They trace the clues to Flamel's monument stone in a Paris museum.  Decoding the symbols, she reads a nifty set of Hermetic riddles and rhymes, which are clues that Flammel hid the magic stone somewhere below the streets of Paris. Luckily, for them, Paris is built above 6 million dead bodies, buried in the crypts below the streets. In 2007, the rock singer Pink starred in a film about some friends who enter the catacombs to take part in the illegal Techno raves that are held there. The film, aptly titled "Catacombs" was mildly interesting, and already gave horror fans a first glimpse of life below the surface. 

What do I look like, a tour guide? 

Joining Benji, Ben and Scarlett, are Parisians, Papillion (François Civil) and his crew, Souxie (Marion Lambert) and Zed (Ali Marhyar). Unlike the "Catacombs" which turned into a slasher film, "As Above, So Below" keeps with the paranormal theme. For example, while making their initial journey into the catacombs via a side entrance through a railroad tunnel, the six of them pass a cavern lit by many candles and with many people, chanting in what could be a satanic ceremony. Creepy. The setting of the catacombs allows the each member of the group to experience their own personal terror. For one member, he keeps seeing his dead brother, for Scarlett, she sees visions of her dead father. Also, the audience along with the adventurers we feel the passages getting narrower, and the claustrophobia sets in. The group gets lost, and it seems like they, as well as the story, are going in circles. 

As Above So Below: Perdita Weeks & Ben Feldma | A Constantly Racing Mind

What troubles "As Above, So Below" is the found footage concept. The point of the found footage is to create a sense of realism, but in this case, the camera movements are migraine inducing. The Dowdle brothers begin with an exciting concept, but unlike Indiana Jones films, the "realism" gets in the way of telling a compelling narrative that the audience can understand and enjoy. Although the brothers spend the first third of the film establishing Scarlett's character and her relationship to George, Benji, the group’s photographer, like all cameramen in most found footage films, is almost a non-entity. The rest of the characters, are two-dimensional and for the most part, expendable. One thing that I thought was important to note, is Weeks portrayal of Scarlett is of a smart lady, who uses her mind to lead, but uses her heart to drive her. 

"As Above, So Below" promises an Indiana Jones adventure, however, it’s found footage style encumbers the visual narrative. With all the buildup of creepy ghosts, trap doors, traps, and the gateway to hell, "As Above, So Below," if anything is similar some ways to "Event Horizon's" ghost story plot of characters haunted by their own guilt. In the story's last act, the characters fall back on religious concepts of redemption and seeking absolution in order for them to find their way back to the surface. Ultimately, the story fails in providing the viewer with any profound truths in the end. 

Movie Data
Genre: Horror, Thriller 
Year:  2014
Staring:  Perdita Weeks, Ben Feldman, Edwin Hodge, François Civil, Marion Lambert, Ali Marhya
Director: John Erick Dowdle
Producer(s): Patrick Aiello, Drew Dowdle
Writer: John Erick Dowdle, Drew Dowdle
Rating: R
Running Time: 93 minutes 
Release Date: 8/29/2014
All images are property of Legendary Pictures

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