AS ABOVE, SO BELOW
Pros: Claustrophobic settings and nice photography make it effectively suspenseful
Cons: Goes overboard in the last act, getting pretty goofy in the process
One of the better recent found footage horror flicks, 2014’s As Above, So Below follows a team of would-be archaeologists and urban explorers deep in the extensive maze of catacombs under Paris in search of the mythical philosopher’s stone used by medieval alchemists. After discovering an artifact that allows for the decoding of ancient alchemical texts, archeology and alchemy student Scarlett Marlowe finds some clues that seem to point to a sort of treasure vault lying in a remote, undiscovered portion of the Paris catacombs. Joined by documentary filmmaker Benji and a fellow researcher (and former boyfriend) named George, Scarlett enlists the help of a team of urban explorers who offer to lead her through the catacombs in exchange for half of any treasure discovered. After some interesting objects have been uncovered, things take a turn for the worst when it becomes evident that this section of the catacombs can detect the fears of those who journey through them. It isn’t long before each of the team members is facing a sort of personal hell.
Directed by John Erick Dowdle (and co-written by he and brother Drew), As Above, So Below benefits immensely from taking place in near darkness in a disorienting and incredibly claustrophobic setting. This was filmed in the actual catacombs of Paris, with little use of props and I have to give credit to cinematographer Léo Hinstin for not only getting the job done in difficult conditions, but actually making the most of them. As was the case in The Blair Witch Project, the most scary thing in the film isn’t the murderous beings that prowl these catacombs and occasionally come into view, but rather that which exists in the mind of the viewer. Much of the film is photographed using cameras (supposedly) mounted on the headlamps of the team members, and the only source of light in the catacombs comes from these lamps. Hence, there typically is only a small patch of light visible directly in front of the camera: the sides and background of virtually every shots is completely obscured in shadow. With the sides of the frame literally closing in on the characters much of the time as they scurry through ever more cramped environments, a viewer spends half the time watching the periphery in hopes of spotting threats before they reveal themselves. Needless to say, the prevalence of darkness ensures that when the inevitable jump scares do pop up, they’re real doozies: this is the perfect scary movie to watch at home with all the lights off.
Though I’d imagine most viewers would go into this film expecting a scary movie, I actually really liked the sections that play kind of like an Indiana Jones or Da Vinci Code. The first half of the film has relatively few obvious horror moments, and instead is more an adventure that finds characters searching for obscure clues, secret passages, and hidden inscriptions. The first-person perspective actually works out surprisingly well during this portion of the film, but by the time things transition into straight-up horror movie mode (after the obligatory – and legitimately distressing – “we’re lost” section), it would seem that the writers decided to make up for lost time, cramming as many shadowy and creepy beings, jarring camera moves, and strobe effect edits into the film as possible along with a spattering of gore.
As Above, So Below does become quite suspenseful during its last act, but the Dowdle’s seem to have gone a bit overboard in an attempt to appeal to horror fans: there’s almost too much craziness happening to keep track of it all, and the vague explanations provided don’t keep things from frequently getting downright goofy. I guess we’re supposed to believe that the characters are faced with some sort of dark magic inflicted on them by the alchemists who once used these tunnels, but this is never quite made clear. It’s kind of shame that things do get so confused and muddled down the stretch: this film had the potential to be something really cool – and even as it is, it’s significantly better and more effective than many modern horror flicks. I just wish the director would have tightened the reins a bit at a certain point instead of letting jagged shaky cam and paranormal mumbo-jumbo take over.
Generally, I thought the cast here did a decent job. Cute British actress Perdita Weeks plays Scarlett, and even though the character had an uncanny (and pretty much impossible) ability to piece together solutions to extremely obscure puzzles in record time, I thought the performance was fairly credible. Even if none of the performers quite hit the right note during moments of hysteria and panic, the script doesn’t do them any favors, sinking to a low point when, after one team member has just succumbed to injuries, Scarlett drops the trademark line of “we have to keep moving,” repeating the line ad infinitum from then on out. Francois Civil, Marion Lambert, and Ali Marhyar play the French urban explorers who find themselves in way over their head, while Ben Feldman sort of underplays George, Scarlett’s former flame who reluctantly joins the team underground. Edwin Hodge initially seems like the proverbial “voice of reason” playing the documentary filmmaker along for the ride, but following a moment in which Hodge overplays the hell out of getting stuck in a crevice, he’s more or less doomed to suffer at the hands of the shadowy figures lurking in the dark. Special notice among the cast has to go to Cosme Castro who creeps it up as the long-lost tunnel dweller who miraculous appears out of the shadows but doesn’t seem to be the same guy that went missing years before…
In the end, As Above, So Below isn’t covering especially new territory – the burial tunnels under Paris had previously been utilized in the altogether mediocre 2007 film Catacombs after all, and first-person scare flicks seem to be a dime a dozen these days – but it’s undeniably effective at building suspense and tension even though it resorts to an overload of horror imagery in its last reel. Found footage films are notorious for having endings that can either make or break them, but I thought the conclusion here was actually kind of clever. The sound design is also pretty neat and appropriately unsettling – I love the occasional bits of eerie, pseudo-religious music that echoes on the soundtrack, and Max Richter’s score plays like dark ambient at its most menacing. I often trash modern horror flicks just because they’re modern horror flicks, but every once in a while one surprises me: though I fully expected it to be completely lame, As Above, So Below turned out to be more entertaining than it really should have been. I’m not calling it a masterpiece or a game-changer, but it’s definitely worth a look.
5/10: Plenty of intensity and some blood, though to the film’s credit, this isn’t remotely as hideously graphic as many of today’s horror flicks.
6/10: Intermittent strong profanity.
1/10: A few glimpses of women in semi-see-through clothing.
6/10: Competently made and fairly suspenseful found-footage horror. I enjoyed it more than I thought I would.
“The only way out is down…”