8/10 A concise, effective horror film.
Scarlett is after the legendary Philosopher’s Stone, trying to finish what her late father started. When her search brings her to the Paris Catacombs, she and her unlikely group of tunnel-delvers will come face-to-face with their own Hell.
Story and Characters
The story is straightforward and knows not to get in the way of the experience. Scarlett is a young archeologist following in her father’s footsteps, ready to risk her own life to find the secret of the Philosopher’s Stone; but this is only the premise to get her and her companions into the Paris Catacombs. It also sprinkles in some Indiana Jonesesque puzzles and traps for our heroes to get through. But this film knows the main event is the catacombs and wastes no time getting there. The scenes we have top-side introduce the story and characters economically, setting things in motion. And there’s no wait for things to get creepy. Tension builds early and doesn’t fizzle out. The atmosphere and tension are piled on thick once we get into the catacombs with our team; it gets weird fast and there are some great ideas here in terms of scares and horror. One thing I appreciate is that the main plot gets us to the catacombs, but the bulk of the story is shared across our delvers who all have personal tales we see in glimpses. The characters are likable and believable. And the illusion of being fleshed out, 3-dimensional characters is effective, even when we only see snippets of their backstories. It works well and is paced perfectly with the mystery of the catacombs. And the actors hold their own; everyone’s performance does exactly what needs to be done. There are no weak links.
Writing and Directing
This is where things slip somewhat. There are some pieces of exposition delivered in clunky dialogue early on. It’s not awful, but it’s noticeable. That said, the writing is otherwise good, and the themes are well entangled into the story and visuals. But probably the biggest flaw is that it was shot as a found-footage style movie. I’m not averse to found-footage films, but there are very few that have done anything interesting with it. And despite the good qualities of As Above, So Below, it being found-footage style is not one of those qualities. It serves no purpose here and creates awkward scenes that would have been much more effective filmed traditionally. It’s a shame because I think many people passed on AASB due to the gimmick, which had been done quite to death by the time it came out. It could have been so much more without the gimmick. Regardless, even with the awkward found-footage style, the directing is solid. At times, you might even forget it’s found-footage in style (further reason they shouldn’t have done it).
Despite its flaws, I can’t knock it much. In all honesty, if it wasn’t found-footage style, I could give it a 9; everything else just works for me. It has its own style and some very effective horror. This creative team knew that simple things, in the right setting, can be way more terrifying than a knife-wielding maniac or giant, screamy monster. If you can stomach found-footage, I highly recommend giving it a try. And stick around for some great end-credits.
7/10 Excellent writing and acting, with a twist on familiar tropes.
The mysterious corpse of a Jane Doe is brought in to the coroners for autopsy. When the coroner and his son get to work, they soon find unusual details about the body. When strange things begin occurring, the two must solve the mystery before it kills them.
Story and Characters
The story is straightforward until a couple of plot twists come up later on. A father and son team begin a late-night autopsy and start finding clues that nothing is normal about their Jane Doe. If you’ve seen police-procedurals like CSI, you know what to expect. There’s a bit of medical jargon, but the audience is kept in-the-loop, and we’re even treated to a bit of schooling. If you like procedurals, this portion should hold your attention until the creeping starts, but otherwise, it could feel like wasted space. As the mystery unravels, the story deepens, and the twist is interesting without feeling gimmicky or over-the-top. It ties elements together that would otherwise feel disconnected. In terms of scares, it’s a pinch of ghost haunting, a pinch of zombies, and a pinch of witchcraft. None of these dominates the film; it’s a tight mix of tropes and familiar concepts. But the bottle* it takes place in feels new. The characters, what few we have, feel like flesh-and-blood people. The father and son duo, played to perfection by Emile Hirsch and Brian Cox, are especially great. I could have gone for an entire season’s worth of episodes of these two. Even the cat has personality, and one of the best death scenes I’ve seen in some time. If your movie’s death scene can’t match the weight and impact of Stanley the cat’s scene, you need to do some work-shopping.
*A bottle movie/episode is a term used for when a story takes place primarily in a single location. This is sometimes done in TV to save budget or time, or to film an episode when a primary actor is unavailable.
Writing and Directing
This is a tight script. No scene is wasted, and every character has motivations, even the titular, dead character. This is something I really appreciate in any story-telling medium: economical scenes. Not only does it keep a solid pace throughout, but it feels like a fuller experience (despite the short 86-minute runtime) because there’s no fat to trim. The directing holds up as well, but there are maybe a few shots that telegraph jumpscares too much, and overall it felt maybe a little lacking in style. It’s competently shot, but the directing itself doesn’t yield any particularly memorable scenes. The script and the acting are what bring the scenes to life.
I should love this film more, but honestly, the main thing holding it back is that, beyond the setting and plot twist, it sticks to a lot of familiar tropes. The zombies, in particular, didn’t do much for me; I’m not a big zombie fan. And though I liked the witch element, I would have liked to see more of it. I feel like there’s somewhere towards the end that the movie could have doubled-down on the witch element but chose to hold back. Still, this is a strong horror film that holds its own.