August can be an odd month for horror film releases. In 2013 we were treated to YOU’RE NEXT, JUG FACE, and COCKNEYS VS. ZOMBIES, a trio of horror films that generated a fair amount of buzz on the festival circuit and opened to favorable reviews. Go back a year and we have THE POSSESSION and THE TALL MAN, the latter of whom slipped into theaters at the end of the month and made most (any) of its money through an early VOD release date. Too early for the Halloween crowd and too late for the summer crowd, the August titles are often a chance for studios to sneak a tough sell into theaters without having to worry too much about the box office numbers.
Fast-forward to August 2014 and, once again, a horror film is finding its way into theaters over the final weekend of the month. This Friday marks the theatrical debut of AS ABOVE, SO BELOW, the rare movie whose title alone will ensure several thousand tickets sales across the United States. What is the film about? That’s pretty easy. First, the film is set in Paris. The movie’s poster indicates as much, as do the several Indiana Jones-esque shots of a group of urban explorers wandering through the Parisian catacombs. Also, the people in the film – though young – have done bad things, things that need to be punished, probably. There’s also some sort of cave-in, and a car made entirely out of fire, and a vague Dante’s Inferno-meets-Instagram kind of vibe going on that I can’t quite figure out yet.
All lright, I’ll be honest – I have no real idea what type of horror film AS ABOVE, SO BELOW wants to be. The trailer seems to suggest the kind of subterranean fear perfected by Neil Marshall in THE DESCENT, while the collision of past and present imagery suggests a hellish guilt-trip best handled by Laurence Fishburne in EVENT HORIZON. In fact, the film remains one of my relatively unspoiled titles of 2014, which makes it something of an anomaly in the Year of the Endless Spoiler Debate. There are really only two conclusions I can draw from watching the trailer for the film: one, the fact that AS ABOVE, SO BELOW contains some mystery immediately makes it more interesting than its found-footage and child possession contemporaries; and two, absent any additional information, we might as well dig into the last film by John Erick Dowdle and his brother Drew to see if it can provide any hints towards the future.
Wait, the Dowdles directed the 2010 film DEVIL, based on a story idea by M. Night Shyamalan? This ought to be good.
DEVIL is a movie about five strangers trapped in an elevator. The opening frames Shyamalan’s native Philadelphia – upside-down, just like the devil would see it – against an unseen narrator who shares a family parable. According to the narrator’s mother, a few times each year, the devil will come to earth and toy with a group of people before dragging them off to hell. The police and the building’s private security force try in vain to get into the elevator shaft. They are also forced to watch as the paranoia and fear get the best of the people in the elevator and they begin die during mysterious dark patches in the video surveillance. Could there be some malevolent force at play? Would the movie be called DEVIL if there weren’t?
Although Drew and John Erick Dowdle are not formally listed as writers of DEVIL, they have suggested in interviews that the writing process was fairly collaborative, so let’s start here. A movie like DEVIL was never going to let the writing do the heavy lifting. While the Dowdles and Shyamalan may have envisioned their screenplay as a fantastical update of an Agathie Christie novel – a group of suspects in a contained environment, each with a murderous vendetta to fulfill – DEVIL wants to be a highbrow horror film first-and-foremost, and that mucks with the body count. Setting aside the obvious annoyance of why the devil would choose to enact his punishment in such a manner, we cannot be expected to find reason to sympathize with characters that exist only to react in the 90th percentile of their emotional range. This means that characters are going to die before we have an opportunity to discover their motives. If the movie is about an appearance from Satan himself, then it should hurry up and say so rather than waste our time in the mundane details of flipping switches and rewiring circuit breakers.
The big issue with DEVIL’s script, however, falls primarily on M. Night Shyamalan’s shoulders. Shyamalan the writer has a knack for creating needlessly complicated mythologies and treating them as the foundation for his films. UNBREAKABLE worked because Shyamalan was drawing on a shared history of comic books and the (super)hero’s journey; THE VILLAGE worked – in my opinion, anyways – because we accepted the world as fantastical and had no reason to doubt his internal rule book. THE LADY IN THE WATER didn’t work because Shyamalan attempted to bring these fables into a contemporary setting while mandating that each of his characters treat the fable as the gospel truth. Just as Giamatti’s character depends on the film critic in THE LADY IN THE WATER for the play-by-play, so does the cop in DEVIL regularly ask the religious security guard for his take on the next action. If you create a mythology out of thin air and then use it as a playbook, you had better make sure we’re emotionally invested in the playbook to begin with.
This is a lesson that I hope the Dowdles have learned from Shyamalan for AS ABOVE, SO BELOW. The marketing material seems to suggest the discovery of hell on earth, which opens the door for all kind of half-baked mythology to come into paly; even if it’s a completely original idea, the Dowdles need to know that over-explaining can be just as frustrating as under-explaining. A good horror movie should be not unlike a Rube Goldberg, where a series of events are put in place that cannot be undone and the only way out of the situation is by going through. Audiences can relate to characters who respond to situations with a consistent internal logic; nothing is more frustrating than constantly going back and referring to the playbook to make sure that the reenactment is lining up right. As a starting point, a little mythos regarding the subterranean concept of hell can be a lot of fun. Get the ball rolling and get out of the characters’ way.
And if the Dowdles can do that on the page, then there isn’t any other reason why AS ABOVE, SO BELOW cannot be an engaging little romp. DEVIL did a decent job of keeping the action moving by coming up with stories both inside and outside the stalled elevator. When showing flashes of mutilated bodies in the elevator, the Dowdles also showed that they have a grittier horror aesthetic that matches the visuals present in the AS ABOVE, SO BELOW trailer. They even managed to provide some truly original ideas in how the police and the people trapped in the elevator had shifting means of audio-visual communication. They may not be the flashiest directors in the world, but they established a sense of space and kept the story moving – I expect more of the same in their new film, even with the increased spatial disorientation caused by the found footage approach. This is an aesthetic they have some familiarity with, as evidenced by the 2008 film QUARANTINE, a remake of the Spanish horror film [REC].
And maybe that’s something to keep in mind as you watch AS ABOVE, SO BELOW. The Dowdle brothers may have gotten their start in original ideas with 2007’s THE POUGHKEEPSIE TAPES, but their last two projects have been either a remake or executed under the watchful eye the film’s writer-producer. AS ABOVE, SO BELOW is the Dowdles’ first chance in seven years to show they are capable of making their own brand of horror films; if this film busts at the box office, it may close future doors for the family unit and relegate them to a future of more remakes and horror-themed vanity projects. It may just be another August horror release to us, but for them, it’s a turning point in their career, and we can all purchase a ticket to see if they sink or swim.
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