Ah, Labor Day weekend, when exasperated studio executives throw up their hands and say, “We’ve entertained you since early May! Enough is enough! Now here’s Ethan Hawke and Selena Gomez driving in a car for some reason!” Smart people get the hint to skip the multiplex and catch some sunshine before being imprisoned to a classroom or a cubicle until further notice.
I’m not one of them.
Two major debuts highlighted this past weekend. Neither featured the starry buzz of anything that came out in the past three months. One was “The November Man” (released last Wednesday) starring Pierce Brosnan, who despite having the most interesting career of any James Bond has not been a big draw in ages. The other was the horror movie “As Above, So Below,” directed by John Erick Dowdle, perhaps best known for “Quarantine” and the M. Night Shyamalan-produced “Devil.”
My anticipation for “As Above, So Below” was minimal. Part of it is that my fondness for horror movies is still developing—I hated being scared as a child—and that it’s hard to get excited for a movie when the number of people at a screening isn’t sufficient enough to play a game of full-court basketball.
But “As Above, So Below” represents why I love watching movies: the potential for surprise. You shouldn’t skip “Guardians of the Galaxy” to see “As Above, So Below,” but it’s lively, engaging, and far superior to the usual occupants of the late-August graveyard.
Like her late father, intellectual dynamo Scarlett (Perdita Weeks) is obsessed with finding the ancient, all-powerful Philosopher’s Stone. With the help of her annoyed American friend (Ben Feldman), she locates this stone beneath the streets of Paris. Scarlett then hires a trio of scruffily attractive Parisians to lead her and her cameraman (Edwin Hodge) through the old, dark tunnels.
A cave-in forces the team to travel down a mysterious path, one that even their guide fears to pursue. Scarlett forges ahead. Soon, the group is confronted by a string of oddities: a phone ringing, a topless choir, and the resurrection of a famed tunnel denizen long believed dead. And things get weirder and weirder.
Dowdle does not go overboard with gore and special effects, but plays upon the fear of the characters, who with each subterranean twist and turn take another step toward madness. The hand-held, shaky camerawork makes it easy to compare “As Above, So Below” with “The Blair Witch Project,” 1999’s pop culture supernova.
There’s a big difference: Dowdle actually wants to scare us beyond conceptual terms. We’re scared by what see, and we like it.
Also, it’s nice to see a female protagonist who is intelligent, brave, and not equipped with a skimpy wardrobe or an urgent romantic entanglement. Scarlett just wants to accomplish her mission. I wish that attitude would occur more often, along with the summer movie season not ending in a phlegmy, heaving gasp. “As Above, So Below” satisfying on multiple levels? That’s why you have to keep watching movies, regardless of season: you never know when you’ll make a discovery.
To read more of Pete’s cinematic musings, please follow him on Twitter, @PeteCroatto.