Halloween Horror: As Above, So Below (2014)
As Above, So Below, from writer/director John Erick Dowdle and his brother and co-writer, Drew Dowdle, is a functional found-footage horror film that weaponizes the Paris Catacombs to provide the sort of shaky-cam scares we expect of this subgenre. That it also manages to intrigue with some entertaining mythology is a minor plus, even if the historicity of the work is on a par with the work of Dan Brown. This is not an exceptional film, as it shares a lot of the shortcomings of the found-footage horror subgenre, but it’s not the travesty many reviewers have derided it as. In fact, it has some remarkable elements for a found-footage horror film, namely its filmic approach to acting and clever cinematography.
As Above, So Below follows Scarlett Marlowe (Perdita Weeks) as she quests into the Paris Catacombs alongside an old flame named George (Ben Feldman) and her cameraman, Benji (Edwin Hodge), in order to find the Philosopher’s Stone, that hallowed alchemical substance capable of achieving eternal life. In the invigorating opening set in Iran, she breaks into a series of tunnels scheduled for imminent demolition, and there comes across ancient hieroglyphs pointing her to a location beneath Paris. This sort of urgency is often lacking in the openings of found-footage films, which tend to begin slowly with everyday life, and provides some momentum that carries the film through the compulsory intro section in Paris.
There are obvious weaknesses here, such as the suspect credentials of Scarlett as the alchemy expert she’s presented as. In an early scene, she explains that she has multiple PhDs, brushing it off as the result of her dad firmly believing in study, which, I mean, yeah right. But there’s also charm here in the relationships between the characters and how they interact. For instance, we meet Ben Feldman’s George in the rafters of an old church in Paris, which he has broken into in order to fix their bell system. This sort of eccentricity and the subsequent moments between Scarlett and Ben avoid much of the faux-naturalism of so many found-footage films. Most notably, Scarlett and Ben bond and bicker over their esoteric interests with nary a mumble, stutter, or improvised nod to the camera to be found. They simply talk like characters you’d find in any history-tinged adventure film: complete sentences and witty turns of phrase.
The introduction of the French graffiti artist, Papillon (Francois Civil), who knows a special way into the Catacombs, only cements the Dowdles’ commitment to avoiding the usual characters found in these sorts of film. In short, these characters speak and act like movie characters, instead of the regular schmoes usually present in found footage. Despite critics’ insistence of the contrary, the Dowdles’ dedication to entertainment over verisimilitude is admirable and displays an unspoken trust in the subgenre’s form to provide the realism necessary to scare people.
As Above, So Below has some other charming elements to it. The mixture of Dante-style hell mythology and Robert Langdon-style historical puzzle-work is fun, lending some character to a subgenre that is often aggravatingly anonymous. The mythology is hokey, to be sure, (and the late moments where characters experience recreations of past trauma starts to unravel the tenuous atmosphere established in the underground scenes), but it’s playful in how it ties into the flights of fancy you might have when touring isolated and unusual historical sites like the Paris Catacombs.
Of course, the success of any horror film is its ability to scare the viewer, in which case, As Above, So Below can only boast modest success. An early scene where the cameraman Benji is trapped in a crawlspace, hyperventilating as he tries to loose himself by frantically digging through the pile of bones that lay beneath him, is genuinely frightening, even for viewers without any sense of claustrophobia. It’s a moment where the loose camerawork and attention to characters’ faces in the underground scenes pays great dividends. Later moments are less successful, as the film’s scares escalate to more conventional haunted house tactics, with scary faces and creepy figures dashing in and out of frame.
At least the last shot makes up for it, which brilliantly captures the title (and the clever poster) by showing the character’s escape in an upside down frame. The meaning of the shot is a little shakier to unravel—is it a happy ending, or are we supposed to literalize the upside down nature of the shot, as if to suggest that they’ve entered a hellish version of Paris? But it is a final instance of the sort of cleverness that the Dowdles are able to conjure intermittently with As Above, So Below.
This is not a great horror movie nor even a very good one, but As Above, So Below has moments of interest that break through the conventions that pad its running time.
6 out of 10
As Above, So Below (2014, USA)
Directed by John Erick Dowdle; written by Drew Dowdle and John Erick Dowdle; starring Perdita Weeks, Ben Feldman, Edwin Hodge, Francois Civil, Marion Lambert, Ali Marhyar.