I didn’t get the chance to read as many books or watch as many films as I would like this year, and so any ruminations on my part about what might or might not constitute the best of the year should be taken with a Dead Sea’s worth of salt.
My impression is that by and large, this has not been a stellar year for horror movies in the theatres. The box office returns tend to confirm that perception, which leads to Scott Mendelson’s gloomy appraisal of the situation here. But what needs to be factored in, regarding horror’s relatively poor showing in terms of numbers, is how few of this year’s films are actually any good. Compounding the problem is the fact that the two recent movies receiving the most glowing acclaim — Ana Lily Amirpour’s A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night and Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook — have received criminally minimal distribution. Last I heard, The Babadook, which by all accounts is absolutely terrifying and would be leading my Best-Of list had I been able to see it, has only played in a single theatre in all of Canada. I hope to catch both of these films in 2015, but as I have yet to see them, I can’t say anything else about them in the context of this column other than express my anticipation. And here, have a trailer.
So, looking back at the rather thin field of 2014, I’m going to have to say that the best thing I saw in the theatres was the Dowdle brothers’ As Above, So Below. The film isn’t perfect. For one thing, it is saddled with the increasingly tired found-footage approach, which in this case results in the presence of a character I think of as the Anti-Red Shirt: a figure whose importance to the plot is minimal, but whose survival is guaranteed becomes somebody has to keep the two leads in frame.* Additionally, the film’s reach exceeds the grasp of its modest budget. And yet, that very excess of ambition is also a point in its favour. Though the visualization of Hell is a limited one, it isn’t often that any film, let alone a low-budget one, has the nerve to spend no small portion of its running time in Hell itself — there are all sorts of simple yet delightfully surreal sights. As Above, So Below put me in mind of such Eurohorror delights as The Beyond (1981) and Revenge of the Dead (aka Zeder, 1983), whose evocations of another world rely at least in part on an impressionistic, tip-of-the-iceberg deployment of their elements and real-world settings (which in this case means excellent use of the Catacombs of Paris).
It has been pointed out elsewhere that the film is also the best Tomb Raider adaptation we’ve had to date, and there is a lot of truth in that. Perdita Weeks’ Scarlett is very much cut of the same cloth as the rebooted Lara Croft: driven to the point of obsession and reckless, but absolutely indomitable, she is a character so very difficult to pull off — one who has the strengths of an action movie protagonist but who still works in a horror movie context.
Perhaps most importantly, and partly as a result of the aforementioned qualities, As Above, So Below is atmospheric, suspenseful, and scary. It was one of the most pleasant surprises of the year for me.
*This character also appears in the risible-yet-entertaining Into the Storm.