As Above, So Below (2014) – Film Review

Co-written/directed by John Erick Dowdle (The Poughkeepsie Tapes, Quarantine, Devil), ‘As Above, So Below’ is certainly an interesting found-footage flick, as while at a first mention the film may just sound like another a stereotypical horror, this claustrophobic delve into the caliginous Paris catacombs does actually have some depth hidden beneath its generic exterior. But unfortunately, even with the story’s intriguing religious imagery/influences, the film soon plummets into clichéd mediocrity, mostly as a result of its bland characters and weak scares.

Plot Summary: When a team of explorers venture into the miles of twisting catacombs that lie beneath the streets of Paris, all in search of the historical: ‘Philosopher’s Stone’. They encounter far more than they bargained for when they realise they have entered into the first of the nine rings of Hell, where visions of their past sins begin to relentlessly torment them.

From a quick glance at the film’s visuals, its understandable why many would see ‘As Above, So Below’ as just another found-footage horror, only this time capitalising on the daunting real-world location of the Paris catacombs, which hold the remains of more than six-million people in the small part of a tunnel network built to consolidate Paris’ ancient stone-quarries. But the film’s setting does heavily-relate to the story of: ‘Inferno’, a short poem written by Italian poet Dante Alighieri in the fourteenth-century, focusing on the tale of man who journeys through Hell guided by the Roman poet Virgil. Even the film’s title plays-into this central idea, as the words: ‘As Above, So Below’ are derived from “On Earth as it is in Heaven”, which is a line from the ‘Christian Lord’s Prayer’, which begins “Our Father, who art in Heaven…”.

Although their characters are immensely mundane, Ben Feldman, Edwin Hodge, François Civil, Marion Lambert and Ali Marhyar are all serviceable in their respective roles, delivering the usual screaming, ventilating and panicking performances that occur in most found-footage films. However, while the film’s protagonist: ‘Scarlett’ is portrayed well by Perdita Weeks, the character herself is noticeably very unlikable, mostly due to her constant obsession with the ‘Philosopher’s Stone’, which she places all of her friend’s lives at risk for without question, and its never made clear whether we should actually be rooting for her to survive or not.

The cinematography by Léo Hinstin is more of the usual for this subgenre, providing the viewer with plenty of shaky and out-of-focus shots as the characters make their way through the almost pitch-black burial-ground. This doesn’t distract from what is easily the film’s most impressive (and most ambitious) filming tip-bit however, which is that the film was actually shot in the Paris catacombs themselves, not in a sound-stage. In fact, this was the first production ever to secure permission from the French government to film within the catacombs, which would have been quite a challenge as the series of narrow, winding tunnels with centuries-old skeletons arranged on the walls would’ve had little room for equipment/crew. Yet this does pay-off as the film utilises it’s location extremely well, always placing its characters in tight areas to insight claustrophobia in the audience.

While the film doesn’t feature a complete original score for obvious reasons, one of the strongest aspects of found-footage flicks, sound design, is actually an area where ‘As Above, So Below’ is lacking. As despite the film’s many attempts to feel impactful when the characters dive into water or are nearly crushed by a collapsing celling, a vast majority of the sound effects don’t sound as if they are coming from within the catacombs, usually sounding quite evident they have been added in post-production on account of the absence of any echo or density.

As a large portion of the film’s narrative is based on Dante’s ‘Inferno’, the film’s basic structure revolves around the characters heading further and further into Hell, with each character facing a vision of a personal sin from their past. These rings (or levels) in order are ‘Limbo’, ‘Lust’, ‘Gluttony’, ‘Greed’, ‘Anger’, ‘Heresy’, ‘Violence’, ‘Fraud’ and ‘Treachery’. But outside of the film’s previously mentioned religious symbolism, after the characters leave the initial catacombs, each ring is represented purely through dark empty caverns, which become quite repetitive after a point.

Altogether, a 5/10 for: ‘As Above, So Below’. Despite the Paris catacombs being a very compelling setting for a modern horror film, in addition to much of the film’s religious influences making for quite a unique story. I’d still suggest other claustrophobic horrors like ‘The Descent’ and ‘The Thing’ before ‘As Above, So Below’, as not only does the film eventually devolve into the standard horror formula without much experimentation, but if you’re unaware of any of the religious-context, then I could definitely see the film being fairly forgettable. In all honestly, I feel this film may have been better-off as non-found-footage, as I think this would’ve allowed the film to better explore its story.

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The Blair Witch Project (1999) – Film Review

Upon its initial release, the original: ‘Blair Witch Project’ blew many audiences away with its realistic depiction of found-footage horror, leading many viewers to believe that the events they were watching on-screen actually took-place, making for a truly petrifying experience. However, now, many years after its first appearance in cinemas, the film’s reputation has significantly altered with both critics and audiences alike, as ‘The Blair Witch Project’ is definitely a film that lies outside of the usual horror clichés.

Plot Summary: When three student filmmakers travel to Burkittsville, Maryland in attempt to produce a documentary based-around the local urban-legend: ‘The Blair Witch’, they mysteriously disappear after traveling into the nearby Black Hills Forest, leaving only their footage behind to be discovered one year later.

Whilst ‘The Blair Witch Project’ wasn’t the original found-footage horror film, with the infamous exploitation flick: ‘Cannibal Holocaust’ first introducing the horror subgenre in 1980. ‘The Blair Witch Project’ was the first film to popularise the found-footage concept, as this film was at one point in time in the ‘Guinness Book of World Records’ for the largest box-office ratio. As the low-budget film only had a budget of around £45,000 and made back over £189 million, quickly spawning an inconsistent horror franchise to follow, despite the film’s only partially-complete backstory for its creature/setting.

The three main cast members of Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard and Michael C. Williams (who all share their real-names with their characters), are all tremendous throughout the film. As while their character’s don’t receive nowhere near as much development as they should considering how much screen-time we spend with them, each one of the actors do give the impression they are becoming more tormented and frustrated the longer they remain in the Black Hills Forest. The main reason the film’s protagonists don’t receive much characterisation however, is actually due to the film’s production itself. As with the film not focusing very heavily on story, the actors were given no-more than a thirty-five page outline of plot-points rather than a full script, so as the shooting days continued, the cast just played-out various scenes. Only having little knowledge of the mythology behind: ‘The Blair Witch’ and improvising the vast majority of their lines.

Practically the entirety of the cinematography by Neal L. Fredericks is exactly what you’d expect from a found-footage horror, featuring an abundance of both shaky and out-of-focus shots, further adding to the idea that just behind the lens is a group of amateur student filmmakers (with some scenes even being shot by the cast themselves). In addition to the hand-held camerawork, the film’s visuals are also quite distinctive when it comes to its visual quality, as throughout the duration of the film, many shots remain incredibly grainy and occasionally even switch to a completely greyscale colour palette, which again, whilst adding to the realism of the film being a no-budget student documentary, does ensure the absence of any genuinely attractive shots.

Although its only heard during the film’s atmospheric end credits, ‘The Blair Witch Project’ does actually have an original score composed by Antonio Cora, but obviously being a found-footage horror, the film mostly aims to please with its sound design. As the sounds of crackling leaves and chirping birds are heard continuously, with many of the eerie branch-cracking sounds heard at night even being made by the director and his friends simply walking-up to the cast’s camp-perimeter and then tossing-around twigs, rocks and branches in various directions.

The main aspect that many will either adore or despise about ‘The Blair Witch Project’ is its previously mentioned focus on realism and minimalist storytelling, as while the film does utilise its forest setting very effectively throughout the runtime, many who may be expecting a thrilling final act or possibly even a glimpse at ‘The Blair Witch’ herself will be greatly disappointed. As a result of the story’s constant emphasis-on realism, the film never actually provides any evidence of the supernatural, with many of the film’s tense moments mostly relying on the darkness of the woods or the belligerent quarreling between the characters.

In conclusion, ‘The Blair Witch Project’ is certainly a fascinating horror film even if it isn’t always a successful one. As to this day, this found-footage indie flick has always been a very divisive film for horror fans, with a 86% score on Rotten Tomatoes, the film has the highest-rating of any film that was also nominated for a Razzie Award for Worst Picture. So even with the cast’s emotionally impactful performances alongside ‘The Blair Witch’ being an intriguing urban-legend simply on-itself, this is one horror that really depends-on your personal tastes. But for me, its a low 6/10 overall. While the film is far from perfect and considerably less compelling than many other iconic horrors, I can appreciate what this experimental piece of filmmaking (and its marketing) was trying to accomplish, and for that, I feel its worth at least one viewing.

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Cloverfield (2008) – Film Reviews

Personally, I’m not an enormous fan of found-footage horror films (especially when it comes to many modern-horrors). However, ‘Cloverfield’ is a rare exception to this, as when this film was first announced, it was surrounded in mystery. As the images and clips that were released revealed literally nothing about the film’s plot. Now, years after it’s release, we know it’s a large-scale classic monster throwback, all brought together with a dark atmosphere, clearly inspired by classic monster flicks such as the original: ‘Godzilla’ and ‘King Kong’.

Plot Summary: After the U.S. Defense Department discover a videotape in the former Central Park, the located footage reveals a group of friends celebrating a surprise farewell party in the apartment of: ‘Rob Hawkins’ in Lower Manhattan, that is until the footage continues-on, and soon begins to show an event far more disturbing…

The film opens with a U.S. Defense Department logo, shortly followed by footage of our main protagonist and his girlfriend in bed. This blending of old footage mixed-in with the new footage of the attack is a great way of giving some development to the characters, alongside breaking up the large amounts of chaotic action the film sometimes falls into. The film’s reasoning for this is explained early on in it’s runtime, as the current tape we are watching is recording over another.

Aside from Lizzy Caplan and T.J. Miller, the rest of the cast are mostly unknown. However, I would say they all did a decent job, as the majority of their screen-time is consisted of running and panicking as they make their way through the streets of New York. I really enjoyed Lizzy Caplan’s performance in particular, as her character (Marlena) gets thrown into an intense and painful situation later in the story. This also results in one of the most disturbing/memorable scenes of the film. Unfortunately however, the characters aren’t given a huge amount of development, aside from a few short scenes throughout the film.

Being a found-footage film as it is, the cinematography within the film is almost entirely hand-held. Usually utilizing a large amount of camera movement to block the audience’s view of the creature in the early stages of the film. Which does really help build tension and excitement, as well as add to the overall mystery that initially surrounded the film. However, the constant shaking of the camera can sometimes become a little overwhelming, even if it does result in some thrilling action scenes. The film obviously also doesn’t have an original score due to its found-footage style.

Another element of the film I quite is the design of the monster, as the design seen throughout the film is very original and really gives off a powerful and intimidating feel, which does enhance the film’s visuals. However, one element of the visuals I don’t enjoy is the film’s colour palette, as it can make the film feel a little too much like a typical action blockbuster or cliché horror at points.

The film does also have plenty of memorable moments throughout, as the film’s narrative goes on, New York City becomes more and more destroyed. This allows our group of characters to make their way through the monster’s path of destruction, avoiding dangerous areas and making fantastic use of the large sets and CG effects the film presents on-screen.

Overall, I quite enjoy ‘Cloverfield’, although it’s now become part of a strange almost anthology-like film franchise. The initial idea of a found-footage monster film always intrigued me, and I’m happy to say director Matt Reeves, producer J.J. Abrams and writer Drew Goddard all did a decent job here. As although weak characterisation and overly shaky cinematography can let the film down, some great tension building as well as the film’s level of realism and some brilliant creature design, keep the film interesting enough to enjoy. I’d say a 7/10 is fair for this one.

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