The existential implications of As Above, So Below are simply terrifying. In the film a duo of improbably young archeologists travel into the Paris Catacombs with a team of extreme adventurers in search of the Philosopher’s Stone and along the way possibly find themselves inside Hell itself. It’s a found footage/docu-style movie, which means each of the characters wears a camera on his head, as well as one of the characters having a larger camera he carries around. As the film progresses some of the characters die, and their cameras are left behind. And yet, here we are, watching the footage from those cameras. How did this footage escape the confines of Hell? And if it didn’t, what does that tell us about our reality…
The frustrating thing about As Above, So Below is that it’s almost good enough to support that kind of a weird reading. The film tries to be more than just another teen jolter, and it comes so close to succeeding that I was bummed out at the end. The film is unique, has interesting characters and uses found footage/POV camera to approach horror in a fun way in some scenes, but ultimately it never quite comes together.
Maybe As Above, So Below would have worked better as a straight film. It has the building blocks of an adventure/horror hybrid that doesn’t need the crutch of POV shots, and it has the basic characters and character beats to sustain a regular movie. Scarlett (Perdita Weeks) is a driven archeologist following the trail that drove her father mad and to suicide. She’s not afraid of danger, she’s whip-smart, she’s very capable. She’s a great character, period, and the fact that she’s a woman is the icing on the cake - this is a role that very traditionally would have gone to a man.
Her search brings her to Paris, and she reunites with linguist and adventurer George (Ben Feldman - yes, Ginsberg from Mad Men), with whom she has a history. Also along for the ride is Benjie, the cameraman (Edwin Hodge) and a trio of Frenchies including sexy action spelunker Papillon (Frank’s Francois Civil). They sneak into the off-limits section of the Catacombs and as they delve deeper they find the tunnels spitting at them their darkest secrets and nightmares.
For the first half of the trek As Above, So Below is vintage Indiana Jones, including a dead Templar. There are hidden doors and secret passages and traps and riddles to be solved. This stuff is great… but it’s weird in found footage. The ‘realism’ of the format makes all of the hurried solving of the Myst-lite puzzles feel forced. It isn’t helped by the fact that the two smart leads are so young you find yourself shaking your head in disbelief. They have a ton of classical knowledge, field experience and arcane know-how at their disposal and they look like they should be on Spring Break. The French trio feel the right age, but Scarlett and George are basically Indiana Jones Babies.
Still, nobody’s making movies like that, so I enjoyed it. But once the horror elements kick in completely the film peters out; it never goes big enough, and it has a deflating ending sure to send the teen target audience out of the theater disappointed. It’s an ending that would work well in a normal narrative, but breaks the tropes of found footage in a way that’s a let-down.
What really works for the horror stuff is how little it’s explained. The beginning of the movie is all characters telling the camera bits of history or working out puzzles verbally; once the nightmare manifestations begin that exposition is out the window. The script trusts that you’ve been paying attention to the little details it has been dropping about characters so that their eventual fates make sense (by the way, the film falters by not making all of the doomed characters meet their sins. It’s a conceit held back too much). Nobody spends much time saying "Don't you understand? THIS is what's happening!" - they mostly just deal with it and try to escape.
As Above, So Below is the latest from the Dowdle Brothers - director John Erick Dowdle co-wrote with his brother Drew - a team that I find intriguing. Their elevator horror movie Devil is an underappreciated little Rod Serling-esque gem, and Quarantine is better than a [REC] remake has any right to be (like the rest of the world I have never seen their first found footage film, The Poughkeepsie Tapes). As Above, So Below is going to end up another film in that specific Dowdle space - movies I kind of like, but that have issues that keep me from truly loving them. In Devil it was the way the whole thing wrapped up, in Quarantine it was a ‘been there, done that’ feeling. With As Above, So Below it’s an inability to quite generate the terror required and a reach that doesn’t quite touch their metaphysical ambitions.
But they have those ambitions! And while As Above, So Below doesn’t quite work as it should, I have to respect it for trying. For nothing else, As Above, So Below is worth seeing for a cinematic trip to the Paris Catacombs, never before featured in a film, and for the heroine, who is hitting the mark for strong female characters that should be so much easier for Hollywood to hit.