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A POV Standout — “As Above, So Below”

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Mainstream critics tend to miss the boat when it comes to found footage movies, and they’ve done it again with As Above, So Below.

You can’t really blame them. Found footage (or POV horror) is a genre that requires victims of a horror movie to tote around cameras while running for their lives. You see everything from their point-of-view and some noble (or perverse) soul presumably cuts all of the footage together later on. The most famous example is, of course, The Blair Witch Project, although the Paranormal Activity franchise has become a low-budget juggernaut. And that’s the problem – for every good found footage movie, there are at least a half dozen bad ones.

Critics also aren’t trained to watch them with the analytical eye they would more cinematic narratives, and those born before music videos redefined the entire film industry in the 80s and 90s may not prize the genre’s best tool – aggressive jump-cut editing – as highly as those born after.

So you can’t blame the critical community, but you can call them out when they miss on a gem like As Above, So Below.

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The strength of the film is Perdita Weeks, playing urban archaeologist Scarlett Marlowe. Her character’s a clear nod toward franchises like Indiana Jones and Tomb Raider. She’s introduced sneaking into an Iranian tomb that’s minutes from being blown up, searching for the Rose Key. This will allow her to translate the words on a gravestone back in Paris. Believing the mythical Philosopher’s Stone is hidden in the Paris catacombs, a warren of graves which stretch for miles below the city, she recruits a less-than-ideal team of cameraman, translator, and urban spelunkers. It’s a wing-ding of a plot, but no moreso than the kind we normally heap on Nicolas Cage, Harrison Ford, or Tom Hanks.

Like the ladykillers I just mentioned, Scarlett also has a roguelike history of using her charm to get others to risk their lives with her, and isn’t above leaving an ally in a Turkish jail if it gets her closer to a historical truth. Her infectious curiosity also makes the suspension of disbelief easier, even when her team discovers the gates of Hell buried beneath Paris.

She also brings an unabashedly British brand of cheer and determination rarely seen in horror movies. Climbing through a tunnel full of loose bones, she turns around to reassure her hyperventilating cameraman, “It’s really not too bad.” When terrifying sounds travel down a dusty corridor and her team cowers, she marches straight at the fresh terror with a resounding, “[Bleep] that, I’m going.” The horror genre as a whole has developed a bad habit of casting victims – no leaders. Scarlett is a refreshingly complete leader in a genre typically based around victims cowering into their cameras.

As Above, So Below does cheat a little. We see from every camera’s perspective, even those strapped to characters later lost to Hell. I don’t think the presumed editor of this all said to himself later on, “I’m going to run down to Hell real quick to grab the rest of the footage.” There’s also a much stronger editing hand than you typically see in found footage movies, especially as the scares ramp up. These cinematic cheats begin to make the movie a bit of a genre mash-up – it uses the techniques of found footage, but by the end, it’s really more concerned with being a movie than in creating a faux sense of “this really happened.”

As Above So Below cap

There’s one more thing to like about the film – its pervasive sense of dread. There are jump scares here, but they aren’t as numerous as you’d suspect. The movie’s focus on rhythm, pace, and behind-the-scenes choreography lets those jump scares shine. I’m not a jumper, but this one had me going.

The film does break down a little toward the end, compiling too much action into too short a time – nearly all found footage films suffer from balancing the action of a climax without breaking the pseudo-reality they’ve established before. As Above, So Below has a clever ending, but it’s a 93-minute movie. Another 10 minutes to maintain the pace established earlier could have improved things.

It’s my favorite horror movie this year, and the best since last year’s You’re Next. It’s not exactly a cinematic triumph, and it’s ridiculous around the edges – I mean, read that plot again – but it’s very effective, and that’s what matters. If you don’t like POV horror, this won’t convert you, and if it makes you nauseous, the camerawork here is some of the shakiest around. If you are a genre fan, however, this is a very solid film in a year starved for good horror.

As Above, So Below is rated R for violence, terror, and language.

E3 Reactions — Vanessa Tottle’s Top 3

Rise of the Tomb Raider

by Vanessa Tottle

When I was growing up, I had a lot of games. I think my parents gave me them because it kept me distracted and away from them for long periods of time. I loved the ones where I could play as women. Instead of watching someone else with perfect hair on a California sound stage kick the shit out of supernatural creatures, I could do it myself.

In Lara Croft, I found a woman who did everything the men did in action movies, but I got to shoot the guns, climb the ancient ruins, and drive the motorcycles myself. I do what I do now (paleontology) in part because I got to be a woman in short shorts and climbing shoes when I was just a kid who thought the world ended at the edges of my hazy town and couldn’t always be sure it would start again the next morning. Yes, Core Design expanded her tits in every sequel until Crystal Dynamics took over the series, but games were the one experience I had in having agency over anything, and Tomb Raider gave me the best games in which I had that agency as a woman. That opened up what I thought I could do in the world.

I have only been watching E3 for a few years, but Ubisoft blew the doors off this one like no other company before: their lineup included Assassin’s Creed Unity (AssU for short), Far Cry 4, The Division, Rainbow Six: Siege, The Crew, and Valiant Hearts: The Great War. Then they were asked why AssU and Far Cry 4 lacked playable women in the multiplayer. An innocent enough question. Ubisoft could have said female playables didn’t fit their vision or that they wanted to focus on some male-driven theme. Not perfect answers, but at least it would mean they had considered the possibility. Instead, they insisted animating female characters would have doubled their development time. Which is bullshit. Which their former animation lead came out and said was bullshit. Which, for a game being developed by nine studios, like AssU is, is especially bullshit.

So forget them. Why?

I’ve got an H.R. Giger Alien to face off against using only a motion sensor and a crème brulee torch. Alien: Isolation looks like everything I want in a horror game: dark and moody, a focus on sneaking around an overpowered opponent, survival against a constant threat instead of victory-by-shooting gallery. All set against a late 70s vision of our technological future and the vast emptiness of space. Its protagonist? Amanda Ripley, daughter of Ellen. Good thing, too. Like in Aliens, I don’t know that your average man with 20 guns could hack it. A woman with a blowtorch and a schematic? The Alien doesn’t stand a chance.

Why else? Because Faith is my Batman. The heroine of the first Mirror’s Edge returns in the second, which for a very long time looked like it wouldn’t get made. Faith slows down when she picks up a gun. It’s extra weight, and she has to use her hands to aim. In a first-person parkour game, that means death. She’s much better at navigating the architecture of a level to beat someone up, avoid combat altogether, or bypass conflict. Imagine playing a game that lets you be Jackie Chan. This is it.

And finally, Rise of the Tomb Raider. When Crystal Dynamics rebooted the franchise in 2013 with Tomb Raider, it kept the supernatural elements of the series and grounded everything else. When you fire a gun, it feels powerful. When you jam a pick into someone’s skull, it takes effort and feels revolting. It was more survival game than shooter or platformer. Lara’s world was no longer glamour and ritz, it was dirt and grime. She’s a woman who gets beat up by her opponents and her environment, but who gets back up again and again, always in the service of helping someone, discovering something new, or solving a mystery. If you’ve read anything I’ve written before, you know why that speaks to me.

So go back to the 18th century, Ubisoft. The rest of us have fucking games to play.

Vanessa is getting her PhD in vertebrate paleontology, with a special focus in geochemistry. She has participated in digs on four different continents. Eat your heart our, Lara Croft. You can read more of her work here.

On DVD: Agatha Christie’s Straw Lions in Winter — “You’re Next”

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Let’s say you’re in a horror movie. You’re one of the villains, and you’re planning a home invasion. There’s a kink in the plans, however. You’ve just discovered the family you intend to terrorize has invited to dinner the toughest opponent in all of movie history: an Australian.

You’ve seen Mel Gibson in Mad Max and Lethal Weapon, right? Not to mention every iteration of Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine…

As a movie villain, you really ought to have the sense to go home, reheat some leftovers, watch your favorite episode of Golden Girls and call it a night, thankful you’ve just avoided what could have been a catastrophe.

It’s good for us that movie villains are rarely this smart. In the case of You’re Next, three murderers wearing animal masks seem to be going home to home for the sake of causing random violence.

We’ve seen this plot before, from Panic Room to Funny Games. The genre even has an unnerving description: home invasion. You’re Next is smart enough to throw several wrenches into the works, however.

It starts with a nail biting opening scene reminiscent of Scream, but it doesn’t linger here. Instead, we get a prolonged introduction to the characters about to be terrorized – the wealthy, dysfunctional, Davison family. There’s favorite son Drake, who never has to work for his father’s approval and uses this as an opportunity to bully his brother Crispian, who can’t do anything right. Another son, Felix, misbehaves while only daughter Aimee is doted on by her mother. They all bring dates, giving us enough characters to be picked off over the course of the film.

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While the setup harkens back to Agatha Christie thrillers, the key to the home invasion flick is that one seemingly weak character takes charge and fights back. Dustin Hoffman set a bar that’s yet to be topped in the original Straw Dogs by transforming from a brittle mathematician into an unrelenting savage. Here, it’s Crispian’s date, his Australian teaching assistant Erin, who slips into survivalist mode like its a warm blanket, expertly wielding a meat tenderizer and setting up hiding places and traps that would make MacGyver proud.

Of course, no one bothers listening to her. It’s the men who feel they know what should happen, even if they have no experience to fall back on. It takes a few of them getting knocked out or running away for Erin to finally get everyone on board, but by then the movie’s delivered a big, beautiful, downright Shakespearian twist that makes you realize she’s the only one left whose life is really at risk.

You’re Next also excels at dark comedy. Even as crossbow bolts rain through the windows, Drake and Crispian bicker about who can run to the car fastest and which of them is too husky. Later, as one character is pursued by the rest of the cast, instead of following the chase scene, the shot politely waits for the villain with an injured leg to hobble after the rest. It’s a testament to director Adam Wingard that the humor only helps to ratchet up the tension.

As Erin, Sharni Vinson joins the Evil Dead remake’s Jane Levy as women who last year far exceeded what’s expected of actresses in slasher films. Vinson is the film’s anchor, giving us a character who seems realistically terrified and yet still trained enough to move into action. If GK Films relaunches Tomb Raider with a younger, grittier heroine, Vinson may have just given the best audition to be their Angelina Jolie-replacement.

You’re Next is an oddity, a tense horror film with a wry sense of humor. I’m shocked that it’s on my shortlist for film of the year, which means it’s truly one of the best recent American horror films. You’re Next is rated R for violence, as well as language and brief nudity.

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