AS ABOVE, SO BELOW
Sometimes, because our expectations for it are usually so low, all a horror film needs to get by is a really juicy setting. Of course, it helps if there's also some talent involved, and I'm pleased to report that John Erick Dowdle's As Above, So Below actually has both. This claustrophobic creep-out may be frequently silly and too inscrutable for its own good, but it boasts a spectacularly eerie locale in its Parisian catacombs (home to the remains of 6 million deceased), and Quarantine and Devil director Dowdle continues his impressive run of lending superb craftsmanship to routine scare-flick scenarios.
The mythology-minded narrative concerns a young academic (Perdita Weeks' Scarlett) searching for the legendary Philosopher's Stone, which she believes is located within the catacombs' 200-mile network of tunnels and caves. And right from the start, your defenses may go up against Dowdle's latest (which he co-wrote with brother Drew), because - wouldn't you know it? - a documentarian is also filming this journey, meaning the whole of As Above is shot mock-doc style in the manner of, oh, roughly 7,000 other horror movies of recent years. Add to this truly needless, irritating presentational conceit the strained setup to our catacomb immersion, and the awkwardly obvious acting by performers who should look as though they're not acting, and you may feel that this Labor Day-weekend throwaway maybe should've been buried along with that elusive stone.
Yet I wound up glad, or at least mostly glad, that I stuck with it. There are exceptionally spooky sound effects and gratifyingly odd flourishes - such as Scarlett and her five-person team stumbling upon a subterranean choir rehearsal - and Dowdle displays a solid gift for sustained tension; the scene of Scarlett's filmmaking ally (Edwin Hodge) wedged amidst human bones grows more and more enjoyably unbearable over the course of its three unbroken minutes. Plus, even though the movie's supernatural detours are a bit cheap and unsatisfying, the catacombs themselves (or their believable facsimiles) add genuine fascination to the proceedings, with their murky dankness and confounding pathways implying that Scarlett's treasure hunt is more accurately a slow descent into Hell. It's hardly a great work, but As Above, So Below is just strong and scary enough to be considered an effective late-summer surprise. Meanwhile, given his track record with seemingly inert fright-film material, John Erick Dowdle should perhaps be considered the go-to guy for anyone looking to re-animate a corpse.
THE NOVEMBER MAN
The most emblematic detail in the spy thriller The November Man comes during one of its interminable chase scenes, when a car crashes into a vehicle that - I'm not kidding - carries a large pane of sheet glass, which promptly shatters upon impact. That's the movie in a nutshell. It's not content merely with the screenplay's inherent clichés; it has to haul more in by truck. Connoisseurs of hoary screen conventions should also adore lead Pierce Brosnan's anguished cradling of his dying lover, Olga Kurylenko disguising herself as a hooker to seduce and kill an adversary whom she won't have the nerve to seduce or kill anyway, and Brosnan's action stud blithely sauntering toward the camera with a fiery explosion occurring behind him. But for my money, nothing in director Roger Donaldson's lame and self-infatuated outing quite tops the moment in which Brosnan delivers the familiar "That was quite a speech" rebuttal after co-star Luke Bracey tells him off - notably because the "speech" Bracey delivers is all of two sentences long. (At first, I thought I must've been mistaken, but Donaldson replays the recorded tirade later in the movie. Yup. Two whole sentences.)
Based on one of the novels in a series by Bill Granger, The November Man has apparently long been a passion project for Brosnan, who first announced plans for the film in 2005. Even more apparently, someone really, really hasn't gotten over his booting from the James Bond franchise. Because it could only be Brosnan's aching need to race around with a gun and drive fast and trade quips with the Ukrainian beauty Kurylenko that kept him from noticing, or caring, how derivative this all is. Warring CIA agents, Russian heavies, political conspiracies, covert operations, double crosses, a female assassin in Spandex - The November Man is like the hippest spy thriller of 1981. Its time-capsule vibe, though, wouldn't have been a deal-breaker if the movie had any true energy or flair, but instead it just ambles from one meaningless, halfheartedly-executed genre pit-stop to another. (There's even a sex scene so superfluous that a woman sitting behind me rightfully laughed at its climax.) And why can't the film get even the simple things right? During one interrogation scene, Brosnan - playing Russian roulette with an actual Russian - holds his gun to a man's head, spins the cylinder and pulls the trigger, and no bullet fires. Brosnan spins and pulls again, and once again, no bullet. And when he spins a third time, Brosnan says to the man, "Your odds are running out." Was no one involved with The November Man aware that (a) that sentence makes no grammatical sense, and (b) with Brosnan spinning the cylinder every time, the man's odds would always be five in six?