The Only Way Out is Down…in As Above, So Below.
If you mixed Indiana Jones with The Descent and shot it as a found-footage movie it might feel a little like As Above, So Below – the 2014 film from John and Drew Dowdle. There’s historical legend, underground exploration, and it’s all set in what has to be one of the most fantastic locations for a horror movie ever – the Paris catacombs.
As Above, So Below follows Scarlett (Perdita Weeks) on a quest for the fabled Philosopher’s Stone – an alchemical legend which could supposedly turn lead into gold and grant everlasting life. She’s following up on the work of her now deceased father, and there’s a little bit of Indiana Jones in her dedication to following the archeological trail at any cost (even if that leads to a tomb in Iran that’s about to be blown to smithereens).
The early parts of the film feel like a low-budget, found-footage version of National Treasure or The DaVinci Code. There are clues hidden in tombs, tablets that need to be translated, and treasures hidden in secret places. Scarlett is making sure her entire quest is documented on film by her cameraman Benji – which neatly takes care of the found-footage rationale. She eventually ropes an old flame, George (Ben Feldmen), into helping her with the translation duties. When the clues they uncover point to a hidden location within the catacombs, she hires a trio of Paris natives to help her find it.
The Paris catacombs are an awesomely eerie place to shoot a horror film and the fact that As Above, So Below was primarily shot on location in their confines adds a creepy verisimilitude to the events of the film. All the best moments and all the best chills play off the setting. When you’re several stories underground, in a place full of the bones of six million people, with no cell reception and no way of telling where you are, the simple sound of a telephone ringing becomes something strange and menacing. One scene when they are crawling through a bone-choked passageway even caused vague twinges of claustrophobia (despite feeling similar to a scene in The Descent).
The Dowdle brothers are the filmmakers behind The Poughkeepsie Tapes and the [REC] remake Quarantine, which I enjoyed quite a bit. (Quarantine, that is, as The Poughkeepsie Tapes continues to be a difficult film to track down.) They’ve got a good handle on making found footage horror films, and mix up the professional footage from Benji with shots from head-mounted GoPro cameras on the rest of the crew – but I couldn’t help feeling like the film was being limited by its found-footage nature. I think it might work better if it had been done as a standard movie, without the need for erratic camerawork and ‘dropped camera’ justifications for seeing things the characters don’t. Certainly it would have helped in the later scenes, when much-needed exposition is muddled and action scenes turn into frenetic visual noise.
Once the truly supernatural elements kick in, things lose both menace and coherency with equal speed. The mood of the whole film changes and – though there ARE horrific things that happen – becomes something more existential and less visceral. The horror becomes primarily internal, and the struggle is against the evil in each person’s soul, rather than the impersonal and implacable nature of the catacombs themselves. It’s not bad, per se, but it IS a distinct and jarring tonal shift. And some of that internal conflict – as it spills out into the physical space the characters inhabit – is, to be honest, a bit trite and maudlin.
The thing is, it’s a well made film. Within the constraints the cinematography, lighting, editing and pacing is quite good – particularly the early, exploratory sections of the film. There are some great creepy moments enhanced by an excellent sound design. The cast – though their characters are rendered primarily in broad strokes by an anemic screenplay – are all above average, with Weeks and Feldman doing the heavy lifting. Once the mcguffin is found; things do get decidedly confusing, however, and the frenzied nature of the cinematography at that point does nothing to help. A lot of the good will the film built up in me during the early sections was gone by the time the ending arrived.
Sometimes you mash two concepts together and you get something awesome – like Nazis and zombies (Shockwaves), for instance, or slasher films and documentaries (Behind the Mask). And sometimes you get things that don’t quite gel – like found-footage and alchemical esoterica. As Above, So Below has some things going for it – a good cast, decent direction and a great setting for a horror movie – but it stumbles just when it should be starting to run.
John Erick Dowdle
John Erick Dowdle and Drew Dowdle
Perdita Weeks, Ben Feldman, Edwin Hodge, François Civil, Marion Lambert, Ali Marhyar, Cosme Castro, Hamid Djavadan, Théo Cholbi, Emy Lévy, Roger Van Hool, Olivia Csiky Trnka, Hellyette Bess, Samuel Aouizerate and Aryan Rahimian.
First film to get permission from the French government to film in the catacombs.
The skulls and skeletons in the film are real and creepily arranged centuries ago.
Actor Ben Feldman (George) suffers from minor claustrophobia. He had to keep taking breaks to be able to film in the catacombs.