As Above, So Below milks a surprising amount of richness from its premise and found-footage format, but is hampered by its inability to fully develop both.
As Above, So Below follows intrepid scholar/explorer Scarlett (Perdita Weeks), who is trying to complete the mission of her dead explorer father by locating the mythic Philosophers Stone. Thanks to a perilous stopover in Iran, Scarlett determines that the stone is actually hidden somewhere in the catacombs under Paris, and sets out to retrieve it with help from her former flame/fellow scholar, George (Ben Feldman).
After hooking up with a team of young amateur explorers, Scarlett leads herself, George, documentary filmmaker Benjy (Edwin Hodge) and the explorer team down into the depths of the catacombs in search of a long hidden passage. However, when they arrive, the group finds themselves caught up in dark, surreal events that bend the laws of reality and draw them ever deeper underground – to a destination that none of them may ever return from.
As yet another entry in the found-footage horror sub-genre, As Above, So Below may understandably be met with skepticism; however, while it suffers from a few of the sub-genre’s inherent drawbacks, As Above, So Below is generally a tense horror thriller that uses some refreshing ideas to create a fun and frightful experience.
It’s no surprise that the film impresses above (low) expectation; it was directed by John Erick Dowdle, who managed to make solid (if underappreciated) material out of a single-setting horror flick (Devil), and an American horror remake (Quarantine), respectively. Here again, Dowdle takes something that could go so wrong (found-footage) and infuses it with some clever ideas and filmmaking techniques that enhance the overall experience.
He certainly borrows a few lessons from Niel Marshall’s The Descent – and then, takes those ideas a step further – using the setting of subterranean exploration as THE principal scare source and threat throughout the film. Phantom apparitions and freakish figures in the dark make their appearance to give us goosebumps, but As Above, So Below‘s most heart-stopping, hand-clenching, sequences have to do with seeing characters squeeze through dark crevices, outrun collapsing caverns, or dive into dark pits or murky pools as they try to survive under the earth.
The found-footage logic and structure (a single documentary cam and multiple head cams – all used for light) helps to create an eerie effect of near-dark menace, with sufficient light to follow what’s going on, and enough variation in point-of-view that the eye does not get bored. Due to the nature of the story (more on that later), the scares come in nice variety ranging from realistic and practical (falling, being crushed, etc.) to dangers more supernatural and psychological in nature. With so many threats at play both internally and externally, it’s easy for Dowdle to apply a pulsing soundtrack and a few visual effects that turn amateurish footage into a playground of dread for the imagination.
Dowdle wrote the script with his brother/collaborator Drew, and while it’s effective in areas like characterization and premise, it suffers a lot in the areas of character/thematic development and narrative arc – despite attempting to sow some much deeper emotional/thematic seeds into the narrative early on. There is also a lot of mythos thrown around (a combination of history, mythology and religious theory), but very little of it is fully explained or resolved – ditto for a lot of character background, which happens to play a huge part in the finale of the film.
…Speaking of the finale, As Above, So Below commits the cardinal sin of so many found-footage movies, and leaves us high and dry with a grossly underwhelming and abrupt finish. Not only does it end awkwardly, it leaves much confusion and half-explanations on the table, turning what had been a captivating and tense journey into a final, lasting, taste of disappointment. Narratively, the film builds on good ideas, but doesn’t ultimately know that to do with them.
The cast is solid for their part. UK TV actress Perdita Weeks sells the character of Scarlett well. Right from the outset, Scarlett’s headstrong (near obsessive) mindstate is established and grounded around a solid emotional core that helps to create a nice three-dimensional female protagonist. Mad Men actor Ben Feldman puts his twitchy energy to good use as George, also structuring his performance around a solid emotional core that helps to sustain the logic of the character. Rounding out the principal three is French actor François Civil, whose upstart explorer character Papilon is a fun charismatic foil for the likes of Scarlett or George.
Purge star Edwin Hodge has less of a character in Benji, the obligatory minority/cameraman; ditto for Ali Marhyar and Marion Lambert, who play Papilon’s assistants Zed and Souxie. Like Benji, Zed and Souxie serve more as tools to keep the found-footage POV focused on the primary players, as opposed to being players themselves. In truth, the trio are unnecessary players thrown into the mix for the mere sake of sustaining found-footage logic while the camera focuses on the principal three characters. With so many characters, it becomes hard to keep track of whom to care about, how much, and (without spoilers) the film ultimately must put the demands of found-footage over the logic of the story at hand, which only further deflates the ending.
As Above, So Below milks a surprising amount of richness from its premise and found-footage format, but is hampered by its inability to fully develop both. A strong premise fizzles out into a weak ending, while a clever found-footage setup ultimately tightens into a noose that strangles the film’s ability to tell its story effectively and fully. While that sounds like a mixed bag on paper, the main thrust of the film is actually everything that fans want from a good horror flick: It’s tense, it’s freaky, and it’s punctuated by enough scares and dread to trouble the imagination even after the film ends in terrible fashion.
As Above, So Below is now in theaters. It is 93 minutes long and is Rated R for bloody violence/terror, and language throughout.