by Matt Smith
Aside from the standard digital handheld the party is also outfitted with four cameras embedded in their headlamps. The cameraman informs them of the cameras’ existence when he turns on the lights which will be so vital to their survival as they navigate uncharted areas of the catacombs deep under the streets of Paris. As they go deeper into the tunnels, the cameras and lights become an extension of our reality—as viewers, we are permitted to see through mediation, we are arranged within the aesthetics of the film as observers who can verify the truth of the image. This is the central conceit of all found footage horror. We must bear witness to the liminal spaces encountered by our protagonists. The movie I’m describing is the new horror film As Above, So Below, an exercise in equal parts creepiness and endurance that works most of the time, keeping viewers on the edge of their seats. The mythology built up within the story is simple: Scarlett (Perdita Weeks), a young scholar and historian, is searching for the Philosopher’s Stone, a pursuit which years earlier had caused her father to go mad and take his own life. Scarlett, along with her ex-lover George (Ben Feldman), the aforementioned cameraman Benji (Edwin Hodge), and three Parisians who will guide her through the catacombs, enter the tunnels under Paris in order to find the hidden chamber containing the stone which is also rumored to be the gateway to Hell.
The first two-thirds of he film are quite strong, though the final act is a bit of a letdown as it falls victim to many familiar problems with the found-footage format, namely the propensity of characters to run wildly to/from different locations while being pursued by monsters which tend to pop up out of nowhere. Since the film spends quite a long time indulging in very clear mythological construction based on occult alchemist beliefs and building an atmosphere of dread anticipation and madness, the later sequences in which Scarlett runs through the mystical realm of Hell while encountering numerous jump-scares just don’t work. The mood set by the quiet build-up to the group’s entrance into the netherworld is abandoned outright, and the descent into shaky-cam and near-constant screaming and shapes jumping out of the darkness is tired and brings the whole thing to a grinding halt. This stoppage is only slightly improved upon in the film’s final shots, which bring back the head-tripping moments of the middle third, when our protagonists first cross the threshold into the mystic realm as described by old alchemist prophecies.
One thing I appreciated about the film as someone interested in the relationship between horror films and the intrusion of recording technologies into the diegetic spaces of media in the past few decades is its overt interest in explaining how the characters had cameras attached to them. As the opening of this essay indicates, Benji makes the addition of extra points-of-view part of the storytelling process in the film, acknowledging that not only is the concept of coverage—following action in a scene through different shots which replicate the same events from a different vantage point—something that he is taking into account while documenting Scarlett’s mission, but also the fact that we, as an audience, are by now very familiar with the hand-held camera as a visual aesthetic in these first-person horrors, and the levels of suspense possible from a single vantage point are no longer novel. Many found-footage films don’t bother to explain why a camera is being carried by the characters beyond the typical explanation of obsessive documentation. The Blair Witch Project operates under the premise that the cameras themselves were found in the woods while investigating the disappearance of a documentary film crew. Spanish horror series [Rec]’s footage was shot by a TV news crew tagging along with a rescue crew that enters an apartment building and can’t leave. In the rather remarkable sequel to that film, multiple cameras are introduced into the narrative through the introduction of a SWAT team that infiltrates the building. Still other films never explain the origins of the footage (V/H/S) while others give too much of an explanation (Diary of the Dead). What is interesting to me about As Above, So Below then is not that it explains the tech itself, but that it adopts an assumption (as many of these films do) that we are already familiar with the tropes of first-person camerawork in tales of suspense and horror.
Of course the roots of the found-footage genre go back to the Italian cycle of mondo/cannibal films in the 1970s. One of the major differences then compared to now is the presence of a frame story, which explains—albeit minimally—the editing of the footage into the film we are watching. Sometimes it is simply a flashback to footage found by a producer who sent his crew into the jungle (Cannibal Holocaust) and sometimes it’s simply meant to “evoke” a documentary through marketing which plays up the exploitation of native cultures in the Amazon (Cannibal Ferox). Outside of the aforementioned entry in George Romero’s Dead series, the editing together of the footage in this newer batch of docu-horrors is never given a thought. In V/H/S it’s explained by people entering a strange apartment and playing a series of tapes in the VCR, but then what are we to make of the frame story of those films? Some frame stories are merely told with title screens indicating the footage was found and that the film company has edited it together for exhibition. This is most readily evident in the first Paranormal Activity film, which thanks the families of its characters in the end credits. The presence of a phantom editor is but one of many problems with this group of films, but I don’t have any answers as of yet other than we know that these are fictional constructs, and that allows us to distance ourselves from the reality of the film’s production and just enjoy the thrills of first-person experience. But knowing that these films are fictional constructs, what then fuels our belief in the aesthetics’ veracity?
I think the answer to that may lie in our experience with home recording technology and our familiarity with images and sounds mediated through camcorders and other devices. We are all trained as viewers at this point to believe the veracity of an image as presented to us through a camcorder. This is partly due to the fact that we are a culture of image makers as recording technology has become not only cheaper but more pervasive over the past thirty years. The creation of fully edited home movies made by amateurs just for sharing amongst friends and family is at this point deeply engrained in our culture. The digital revolution of image culture is that we can all readily upload and distribute such images through the internet. Websites such as Vine and Twitter thrive on user-produced image content, the former more single-mindedly than the former. YouTube vlogs are also part of this swirl of online images. I don’t have time to go into all of these things here, but I do want to relate this web of image content online to a few reality shows that have appeared on the air since Cops nearly thirty years ago and which play significantly into our understanding of mediated vision in these found-footage horror films.
Ghost Hunters kicked off a cable TV reality show revolution when it first aired in 2004. The show followed a team of paranormal investigators as they went around (at first) New England and the Northeastern United States to investigate claims of hauntings and other paranormal activity. The approach of this team was scientific. Using not only audio and video recording equipment, but also EMF monitors and heat sensitive technologies, the show provided a template for how other shows which would adopt similar ghost hunting formats should look and feel to the audience. This included a heavily mediated aesthetic reliant upon the night-vision/infrared capabilities of the cameras used to record the team while in darkened locations. Subsequent entries in the found-footage film genre would utilize night-vision to great effect, playing upon our own inability to see in total darkness, allowing us not only the ability to see somewhat clearly the area around our protagonists but also using that extra knowledge to create fear and suspense as we watch the people on screen scramble around in darkness unaware of what spirits or other monsters might be closing in on them. In the reality TV realm we rarely see anything during the sequences in which night vision is used, but the disorienting visuals of the technology present us with an uncanny image, one which is familiar—the world as it exists in darkness should we be able to see it as such—but also totally separate and unknowable—green-tinted, lacking color and definition, and spooky enough on its on. I still need to conduct a study of this format and why these aesthetics are so effective for these shows, but I have a suspicion that the limited visibility within night vision technology (as well as the lack of defining features of bodies and environments in heat vision tech) play into our sense of just being able to make out a shadow here or a moving object there.
So what then does all this have to do with As Above, So Below? Well, a whole lot, actually. My interest in the found-footage format as well as the general aesthetics of first-person horror play quite heavily into my goodwill toward the film. And I do contend it does a lot of things very well, including playing on our fears of limited vision in darkened spaces while never resorting to the ready-made uncanniness of night vision. There are moments of genuine creepiness in this film, even in the final third. Once monsters start popping up and we’re treated to another cliched race against time to set things right in order of the remaining characters to escape, I pretty much gave up. But okay, so the good. Let’s get to it. I liked the mythology set up by the film. The blending of alchemist history and pagan ideas of what Hell is really worked for me. Early on, just as the group is entering the cave, they encounter a mass of women in the catacombs singing some sort of hymn. The women are topless, surrounded by candlelight and their leader glances at the camera as Benji passes them. These women tie in to some of the later events of the film, but their role early on is key as it begins to set up the descent into uncertainty and potential madness our characters will encounter once fully subsumed within the catacombs. The hymn they are singing permeates the next scene as they attempt to move into one of the inner chambers of the tunnel system, and the effect of the music on this sequence is quite stunning.
Once Scarlett finds the stone and plucks it from its resting place, things go very badly. A collapsed tunnel blocks the group’s way out of the catacombs, and the only way out is to go deeper. After discovering a secret passage leading down, the group exits only to find that they have re-entered the chamber they just left, though everything is a mirror image of where they already were. Here is where I think the found-footage angle starts to get really interesting. The group begins to encounter numerous strange and bizarre vignettes tied directly to their past, and several members are killed off in very gruesome (if a bit clichéd fashion). But after the initial burst of violence, the film reverts back into the slow descent into the shadows of unknown territory that was so effective in the film’s middle section. Hooded figures pass in the distance, their features undefined. Are these people? Condemned souls? Some unholy order of priesthood? Demons? We are never given a clear look at them, and one of the most tense portions of the film features the surviving members of the expedition sneaking past one of these figures as it sits alone in the dark in a high-backed chair reminiscent of those one might find in a church pulpit. When the figure in the chair starts to rise and slowly walk toward the tunnel the group has just turned down, the dread is palpable. This is one of several really great moments the film gives us as the characters attempt to find their way out of the underworld. Scarlett and a couple of others in the group finally escape from Hell through a manhole cover back onto the streets of Paris. I won’t give away the circumstances of their survival not because you should wait to discover them for yourselves, but because I think it’s largely uninteresting and produces a rushed ending. But up until the last ten minutes or so, I’m fully on board with what this movie does.
So here we have what I would say is an effective use of found footage’s long history and very particular set of aesthetic sensibilities married with a clever method of introducing the audience to the conceit. Is it full of things we’ve seen in numerous other films? Sure. But it’s also a well-constructed box of clichés, which some very good horror films overcome. I’m not saying this is a very good one, but it’s mostly good, and that’s worth something in the summer doldrums. It’s a pretty solid good time at the movies and you get exactly what you’d expect plus the bonus of the world building being engaging. And it is certainly a key film as far as I’m concerned in the somehow still ongoing found-footage genre of horror.
2.5 out of 5 stars