Devil in Distress: The Dowdle Bros. Spelunk Their Way to Hell
Known as acolytes of fallen angel M. Night Shyamalan, the output of the Dowdle brothers could be a lot worse. First arriving back in 2008 with the American remake of REC, known as Quarantine, they followed that up with the painfully terrible Devil, whereby said entity terrorized stereotypes in a stopped elevator (based on Shyamalan’s script). So really, their latest venture, As Above So Below, from producing brother Drew and directing brother John Erick, feels like the first time we’re experiencing their own sensibilities. It’s their best film to date, yet a penchant for overreaching tactics and underbaked explanations forces the potential of their madness into a muddle of silliness. Yet, the film isn’t without an enjoyable amount of tension and fans of the genre may find its intentions, at least, to be in the right place.
Sneaking into Iran with her camera to take a peek in a cave that’s about to be blown up, explorer and student of alchemy, Scarlett (Perdita Weeks) successfully takes a snapshot of a legend that will help her translate ancient directions to point her to where the philosopher’s stone is secretly kept. She speaks four spoken languages and two dead ones, or so she informs the documentarian Benji (Edwin Hodge), who will be following her on the quest, but Aramaic isn’t one of them. So, Scarlet has to flirtatiously beg love interest George (Ben Feldman) to do so for her. But George is still miffed at Scarlett—their last adventure landed him in a Turkish prison. After minimal convincing and an eerie translation, they’re exploring the off bound limits of the Parisian catacombs with the help of streetwise spelunker Papillon (Francois Civil). But it begins to be increasingly obvious that all those hints about transgressing the ‘barriers of hell’ might be true.
Surely, it’s a testament to the miserly glut of unengaging horror films being made today when we realize that there are portions of As Above So Below that are unnervingly scary. The film reaches a zenith early on, when its fastidious cameraman gets stuck in a crawlspace, suffering a panic attack as he claws his way through human bones and the threat of rat bites. It recalls the delightful scare tactics of Neil Marshall’s The Descent (2005), though this film is nowhere near as successful. The Dowdles are operating at their strongest when playing on our base fears. Once the film starts developing into an odd mixture of a lost Indiana Jones chapter (revolving around the Philosopher’s Stone, the rock that was part of the original Harry Potter title, a word deemed unmarketable for US audiences) and Stephen King’s abridged rendition of Satan’s operating powers, it all starts to get rather vacuous. When Scarlett ‘discovers’ the solution to dealing with each of their personal phantograms, you’ll be grimacing through to the finale, which loops back to her testament to seek out the truth, no matter what.
Returning to found footage territory, the Dowdle Bros. seems to prefer this perspective for the amount of fast and cheap scares it can generate. Yet that’s exactly the problem—it’s a gimmick that never feels as if it’s being utilized to its full effect. Things jump out, strange figures haunt the outskirts of the frames, and yet, these are flourishes that could have been easily used without the hand and head-held cams. And, as always, its nifty editing is always a distraction—who found the footage and stamped it together all nice and neat? We’re continually lost as to whose feed picks up what, etc. Sometimes the generally off camera cameraman is filming in front, sometimes behind the crew. The actors are slaves to the silliness of their contrived characters, with the Parisian set getting laughable nicknames like Papillon (which means butterfly) and, worse, La Taupe (the mole), which are not only awkward but have to be explained to the English speakers so we can all, you know, get it.
Any inventiveness of As Above So Below wears off early on, but one would be remiss to not credit the film with at least generating a few scares, even if it doesn’t live up to its potential. If the devil were so easily vanquished, a trip through these catacombs ends up looking like a cakewalk. However, as designed, it will probably terrify claustrophobic Catholics.