Saturday, July 11, 2015

As Above, So Below (2014)

With her combination of academic degrees and more practical adventuring talents, Scarlett (Perdita Weeks) makes a rather good pulp heroine (and probably thinks guns are for amateurs). She’s seeking the Philosopher’s Stone supposedly hidden in Nicholas Flamel’s secret crypt, to finish the work her father began before he committed suicide.

After a short intro visit to Iran to acquire some information needed to decode Flamel’s gravestone, Scarlett grabs her rogue clockwork repairman friend and expert in Aramaic George (Ben Feldman) and follows the hints Flamel laid into the Catacombs of Paris, with a group of Parisian urban explorers led by one Papillon (François Civil) as their native guides. They are accompanied by Benji (Edwin Hodge), who makes a documentary about Scarlett’s search, because why not? As it goes with things alchemical, the search becomes rather more dangerous and more metaphorical than anyone could have expected.

After a start that suggests director writer John Erick Dowdle will do a sort-of Dan Brown-ish, Indiana Jones and horror-influenced bit of POV catacomb running, As Above, So Below’s second half makes clear that he and his co-writer Drew Dowdle do have a working knowledge of various interpretations of the meaning of the alchemists’ search for the Philosopher’s Stone. Given the literacy level in filmmaking circles, this comes as a pleasant surprise, yet also, alas, leads to the part of the film more than one professional film critic professed to not understand, even though the film’s ending should be quite clear to anyone with even the most basic knowledge of what it is about. I’d wager even a visit to the Wikipedia page about the Philosopher’s Stone should educate anyone enough to understand a film that isn’t exactly cryptic and only avoids to explain itself with a sledgehammer. But what do the film and I want, film critics who either have an education or are willing to put in five minutes of Internet time to understand something quite simple? Absurd, clearly.

Anyway, before I really get to ranting, let’s say nice things about a film that is pretty much ready-made to be enjoyed by me, seeing as it combines an ass-kicking (okay, living statue-bashing) heroine in the pulp mode played with what looks like a sense of fun, a treasure hunt full of dubious clues, distortions of time and space, people having to face their own demons in a very concrete way, silliness, utter silliness, and some surprisingly well-thought out parts into a fast and generally fun bit of genre mashing that probably would have felt at home in pulps like Weird Tales or Adventure in one of its more free-wheeling phases. Sure, Dowdle’s direction never really manages to make the Catacombs and the places below it feel as claustrophobic as they should, but then this is in feel more an adventure than a horror film, though one with a mild psychological and metaphysical angle.

Approached from that direction, it becomes easier to appreciate the film’s tempo, the way it pushes its characters ever downward into deeper trouble, never giving them much space to think. It also explains the horror atypical ending which – spoiler! – actually sees some of the characters surviving and psychologically (and potentially morally) strengthened.

But clearly, given the hatred poured out over this little film, your mileage may very well vary (but please don’t tell me if it does).

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