Director: John Erick Dowdle
Studios: Universal Pictures, Legendary Pictures
Starring: Perdita Weeks, Ben Feldman, Edwin Hodge, François Civil
Tagline: The only way out is down.
MPAA Rating: R
Genre: horror, terror, thriller, drama, psychological thriller, found footage, gateway to hell, ghosts, underground
Scare score: B
Plot overview: In modern-day Paris, urban explorer/ [al]chemist/ college professor/ double-PhDed/ possible daughter of Indiana Jones/ still hot and normal Scarlet Marlowe (Weeks) is set on continuing in her and her late father’s quest to find the legendary philosopher’s stone. Followed by cameraman Benji (Hodge) and quirky love interest George (Feldman), Scarlet is guided by the savvy Papillon (Civil) and his two friends deep into the catacombs below Paris. However, all of the team’s research and experience couldn’t prepare them for what awaits them below.
True story: I just watched this movie in an entirely empty movie theater. While I had hoped that it would add to my experience, I quickly found that As Above, So Below was not the scariest movie to sit through by myself.
Written (in part) and directed by horror regular John Erick Dowdle, this movie certainly has a touch of Quarantine to it. I mainly attribute that to the found footage take on the film as well as the dark figures lurking in an even darker background, illuminated only by choppy camera light. As far as the upside-down, reversed world perspective of the movie goes, we of course also think of the opening sequence of Devil, which Dowdle also directed.
As soon as the movie started, I let out an almost audible groan when I realized that, naturally, this movie was going to be found footage. I rather hate found footage movies; there is something cheesy and ironically unrealistic to this approach that tries so desperately to make things seem realistic. In many ways, found footage is a feeble attempt to scare the audience solely through visual input instead of through plot and creativity, which in my book carry more integrity. Then again, I am always welcome to new or different ways of filming and editing. Unfortunately found footage will never overcome its stereotypes from Blair Witch. Vomit bags are recommended.
Even so, As Above, So Below begins with an intriguing and loud opening sequence of events that introduces us to our protagonist and how she is willing to put her life on the line for her work/ life passion of exploration and civil/urban archeology. I did find acting to be pretty labored throughout the whole beginning of the movie, well into when the team actually enters the catacombs, about 45/50 minutes into the film. This movie really toys with the audience’s capacities for suspense and thrills, surprising us when we don’t expect it to and then letting us down when we want more.
The scares in this movie are many and varied. There is a general sense of dread (but is it ever confirmed?) and an undeniable similarity to The Descent. Otherwise, the twists and turns of the catacombs and caves below Paris, paired with the rapidly-moving and changing footage from the characters’ cameras force the viewer into an uncertain and claustrophobic atmosphere; our own sort of purgatory filled with excitement and terror as we never know what lies around each corner. That being said, let me mention that the set of this film seems fantastic and vast. The first real scare of the movie catches us off guard about 40 or 45 minutes in, and from that point on we are frequently bombarded with visual and psychological scares (will the team die down there? what was that face in the water? etcetera) that serve to either confuse or intrigue us until we are left with perhaps more questions than there are answers.
This movie covers a large amount of literary and historical themes, ranging from alchemy to religious and satanic symbolism, and then ultimately focusing on redemption (which is also heavily tied into alchemy once again). That being said, what was perhaps presented as a found footage, gateway to hell-esque film suddenly becomes something that tries to dig deeper, much as the catacombs do below the streets of Paris. Horror and supernatural elements set aside, this is a movie that deals with character forgiveness and judgement, with the survivors eventually seeking retribution (or not) for past ‘crimes’ that have haunted them until the present. Such a transformation from sinfulness to redemption is much akin to the general themes of alchemy and related followings such as Freemasonry, and it is one of the most basic themes in literature since the times of Aristotle.
The first time I heard this movie title when I saw a trailer a few months ago, my mind immediately went to “on Earth as it is in heaven,” and perhaps yours did too if you say your prayers every night. That being said, I was expecting much more of a gateway to hell style movie than what As Above, So Below presents us. From the beginning, small hints of what’s to come are dropped and then gone again in the blink of an eye. While still in Iran, Scarlet clearly sees a spectral apparition of her father, hanging on his noose. This comes back a lot later on, but then are we led to believe that Scarlet herself is unstable? There are questionable visions and scares placed in the movie well before our cast of characters enters what we are told is an evil part of the catacombs. Who, then, is seeing what? Can we trust any of our characters, and to what point? Why are there “normal” people in these closed-off sections of the catacombs performing what is either a satanic ritual or the world’s most secretive choir practice? Special shout out to Olivia Csiky Trnka, who, with her piercing, wide-set eyes was certainly one of the scariest aspects of the movie. Is La Taupe (Cosme Castro) alive or dead, and if he is alive how does he move so quickly or appear in places that he previously was not? Who or what is the hooded and maybe masked phantom lurking in the darkness of the caves? What is its purpose? Why is a man nicknamed ‘Butterfly’ when he explores caves for a living? Why?
One issue I definitely had with this movie was its failure to deliver. Whenever a horror movie starts throwing tons and tons of shallow red herrings at us, I find myself going into a sort of scary sensory overload. As Above, So Below often presents us with some very scary images that ultimately mean nothing after their brief screen time. I thought that the hooded, masked character towards the end was extremely scary, but nothing came of it. The ‘dead’ knight/ Nicolas Flamel, Miss Trnka and her haunting eyes, the boy in the water – all of these piqued our interests yet very few were explained inside of the plot. What were those bodies that burst forth from the stone, and why were they there? This to me is a horror movie trying too hard with a hat full of cheap scares. At the end of the day, are our characters really in hell, or just some strange parallel reality where they must account for their sins or regrets in the past? Even if this is the case, why is it happening, and why in the catacombs of Paris? As Above, So Below sets up many exciting plot angles and story lines, but in the end, it only delivers on a few.
Final critique: If you think you would enjoy a crossover of Harry Potter, Indiana Jones, and The Descent, this is the movie for you. Even seeing this movie totally alone in a dark theater couldn’t make it much scarier, regardless of the countless, futile scares the creative team threw in for fun. This was not a bad movie, but sometimes the only thing worse than a flat out bad horror movie is one that promises us real terror and then fails to deliver.