Let’s face it, archaeology doesn’t exactly get the best representation in popular media. There’s dozens, if not hundreds, of films out there that feature an ‘archaeologist’ as a main character – one who speaks 3 different dead languages fluently, breaks more artefacts than they save, and never, ever does any research or write-ups. Is it possible that there’s an archaeology-themed film out there that we can recognise ourselves in? Well, there’s only one way to answer that – and luckily, we’re here to watch terrible archaeology films so you don’t have to!
We’ve started off by reviewing a horror-themed archaeology film, just in time for Halloween. So read ahead… if you dare. (Spoilers!)
AS ABOVE, SO BELOW (2014)
“When a team of explorers ventures into the catacombs that lie beneath the streets of Paris, they uncover the dark secret that lies within this city of the dead.”
The marketing on this film distinctly didn’t mention archaeologists. Maybe it’s not a sexy enough profession, or maybe they worried that people might bring to mind the iconic Indiana Jones archetype – or worse, the Lara Croft.
Still, enter Scarlett Marlowe, our protagonist. She’s under thirty with two PhDs and a full time faculty position at UCL, a set-up which anyone in the academic world will find harder to swallow than the haunted catacombs themselves. One of these PhDs is in urban archaeology, a master’s chemistry, and someone, somewhere, let her complete a second PhD in symbology.
(Nowhere offers this. I checked.)
In case you had any further concerns about her qualifications, Scarlett also speaks six languages, two of them dead, and is a black belt in Krav Maga (a talent which never manifests, even when it might have been handy). She can also pick locks.
Like any archaeologist worth their salt, Scarlett seems to spend most of her time absent from her teaching and research commitments, exploring and breaking into various sites around the world. Where she gets her funding remains unclear. I hesitate to touch again on the Indiana Jones archetype, as we at least witnessed Indy doing some teaching, but to say that it doesn’t spring to mind would be a lie.
Let’s put it this way: the film opens with our intrepid archaeologist breaking into a network of caves in Iran as they’re being demolished to look at an inscription of which she already has a photograph. She might not wear a hat and carry a whip, but they’re there in spirit as she seeks the object of her research: the Philosopher’s Stone.
Together with her cameraman Benji and her friend/source of unresolved sexual tension George – who spends his time breaking into historic buildings to fix clock mechanisms (again with no clear source of funding) — she breaks into churches, defaces archaeological artefacts, and generally causes chaos around Paris until she makes it into the catacombs by way of a team of French youths who spend their time delving into the catacombs with a van full of professional equipment (again with no clear source of funding, or indeed purpose).
In the catacombs, of course, things get weird. A strange, singing cult; bricked up tunnels from which ‘people don’t come out’; tunnels which suddenly lead back on themselves in impossible circles; a ringing telephone deep underground.
This is where the film turns from a pseudo-archaeology adventure into a horror.
Suddenly the catacombs are full of familiar sights, objects from the past, impossible things that shouldn’t be there. Reminders of people that each of the group have lost, or mistakes they’ve made. People that ought to be dead.
“The only way out is down,” says La Taupe, or ‘the mole’, who used to live in the tunnels and apparently disappeared two years ago after going to explore the very parts of the catacombs they now find themselves trapped in. And so, they descend.
After various trials, tribulations, and puzzles too convoluted to list here, they come across a treasure room. At last! A secure source of private funding! The Philosopher’s Stone! Vindication for Scarlett’s father, considered crazy for his studies all these years, and presumably a number of research papers in reputable journals!
But apparently no one here has ever watched Indiana Jones, the Mummy, or indeed any other film about an important magical artefact; it’s a trap, and they find themselves stuck, with their only escape through the logic of the alchemists – ‘as above, so below’.
And so, descending further, they find familiar places, passages, and chambers – but reversed. It’s here, in this underground mirror-world, that the deaths begin as they continue to descend, over a thousand feet down.
One girl dies at the hands of a seemingly rabid La Taupe. Benji the cameraman falls down a shaft after a woman lunges at him from the darkness, in a mirroring of an earlier, non-fatal tumble. George sees his little brother, who drowned in a cave when they were young, drowning again. Everything becomes a tense tangle of ghosts and secrets and regrets.
As a horror flick, it stands up. It’s certainly tense, carrying a constant dread interspersed with jump scares and quiet moments where filmmakers are brave enough to leave some things to the imagination, rather than labouring the dark backstories that haunt each of the party. Without a grim list of all the deaths and scares, it’s enough to say that they’re suitably varied and imaginative to inevitably touch on at least one thing that will freak you out.
Sure it’s a little cliché in places, a little predictable in others, it over-uses the ‘found footage aspect’, and quickly drops any pretence of the character’s professions or motivations mattering much – no archaeology down here, folks – but nonetheless it’s a good romp, if you’re looking for something more gory than it is intelligent.
“I’m not doing this for financial gain,” Scarlett says in some interview footage that plays at the end of the film, which is lucky, because I’m pretty sure that if she tries to write this up, her professorship will be out of the window.
Perhaps it’s for the best. While Scarlett makes for the perfect horror-film protagonist – plucky, intelligent, brave, and with a whiff of tragic back story – I don’t reckon she’s much of an archaeologist.
- Ancient language translated on the fly rhymes perfectly in English.
- Made-up Egyptian curse, artefact or technology is hiding the treasure.
- True love’s kiss saves the day?!
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