Director John Erick Dowdle (Quarantine, Devil, Poughkeepsie Tapes) rests his descent into madness story on the shoulders of less-than-likeable protagonist Scarlett (Perdita Weeks) who defines tunnel-vision as a way of life. A woman raised with unrealistic expectations from her academic father, Scarlett is introduced as an intensely driven, intelligent but common sense lacking college professor on the path of a lifelong obsession of her father’s – namely, to track down the famed philosopher’s stone. This takes her to dangerous places tracking leads and clues and gives us the chance to see how little regard she has for caution on the part of rational thinking people and about, really, the welfare of others when it comes down to it.
Her quest is being documented by an amateur filmmaker Benji (Edwin Hodge) and soon takes her to Paris where she intends to gain help from an old friend who can aid in translation of the ancient carvings she photographed in the film’s opening sequence. We’re then introduced to George (Ben Feldman) who initially seems quirky and odd but nothing much is done with his eccentricities beyond the intro. Through a full court press of charm and coercion and guilt-tripping and subtle flirtation, Scarlett quasi-convinces George to help and sucked into this fateful trip he goes. Add in a less-than-legal French tour guide (to get them to the undiscovered areas they need to get to) and his cohorts and we have our ensemble set to dig down deep under Paris in search of the legendary item that was her father’s ultimate undoing.
The film, at this stage, becomes a by-the-numbers first person journey down into the depths with a healthy dosage of swinging camera movements from the primary and support shots from head lamps that seem to alternate in a wildly convenient way. If you commit to the idea, as the viewer, that this is all shot as it happens and we’re ‘part of the group’ then it becomes increasingly tough to swallow the right-on-the-nose alternating between these filming sources. Or, if we’re to accept that this is an assembling of all footage after the fact, then whomever assembled it is a callous jerk because there is a good heaping of death and pain throughout. Either way, as ‘in the moment’ or as a ‘presentation of the footage’ it doesn’t work well and is entirely too sharp and on point.
There are many other examples of this in the middle section of the film, once with Scarlett and remarkable calculating skills, others with camera switching at exact moments and a lot (and I mean A LOT) of very herky-jerky exposition about this being a bad idea, this is something we should keep doing, this is something we should not do and what is that sound type of stuff that gets old in a hurry.
Because once the proverbial shit really hits the fan, it becomes a very different journey for this crew and especially for Scarlett. It isn’t hard to piece together what is happening to them as the venture further down into the depths but honestly it isn’t that compelling either. Primarily because outside of passing pity at her lunkheaded drive, Scarlett is not a rooting-for type of character. Not one you hate either, but, just not someone you invest emotionally in.
This is a troubling problem when your film demands the viewer buy into the severe emotional cruelty each of the crew must endure and, most disturbingly, how much of said cruelty is self-imposed. With folks (and a lead especially) that you’ve committed to in that way, the transition to the 3rd act would resonate more fully and tragically but instead there is slight ‘just desserts’ vibe about it which doesn’t really feel right either. That isn’t to suggest Perdita Weeks does a bad job in the lead role, quite the opposite actually, but her motivations and blatant abuse of the care and regard of others towards her makes the heartstrings stay largely unpulled.
So getting back to whether it works on the whole or not – this will come down entirely in the viewers’ ability to allow themselves to be unnerved by the drifting camera reveals and cat-scares that are the lifeblood of first-person films the lion’s share of the time. The jumps are jumps because something makes you jump in an instant, not from a slyly manipulating dread that builds undetected until it strikes. This is frustrating because the environment of these catacombs is so unnerving just by itself, all you really need to do is allow it to do its thing and most of the job is done for you. But instead, you aren’t allowed to scare yourself silly as much as you’re dragged by the nostrils from one pop to the next and told to jump. But to be fair, sometimes that is all you really want right in that moment and won’t retain for too long after the credits roll.
It goes without saying that it is nice to see a release like this hit theatres where you don’t have a herd of CW types clogging up the scenes with perfect hair and cardboard acting. It is nice to see a commitment to supernatural horror by way of myth and religion and is great to see two female characters that don’t get conveniently pigeonholed into standard horror archetypes. However, the first-person perspective (and its associated parlor tricks) robs the film of so many opportunities to build real palatable dread that when it is all said and done, it doesn’t feel like the fully satisfying claustrophobic freak-out it aims to be.