As Above, So Below is an ambitious excavation horror movie that tries to blend the world of Indiana Jones with the found footage genre. And though the locations are breathtaking and the scares very real, the film as a whole collapses under its own mythology. But we kept rooting for the survivors.
Directed by John Erick Dowdle of Quarantine, who co-wrote the script with his brother Drew Dowdle, As Above, So Below did a lot of things right and a lot of things wrong. But what really makes this movie stand out above the rest of the low-budget horror movie glut was the decision to film on location in the Parisian catacombs. It doesn't take much to make the dark tombs (which house more than six million souls) freaky, and As Above utilized every nook and cranny of those tunnels of the dead, creating an exceptional chill factor.
The story is centered around the foolhardy, "I woke up like this" beauty Scarlett. She's a modern-day archeologist and student of alchemy. But unlike the leg-holstered video game vixen she will most likely be compared to, Scarlett dons the prerequisite khaki ensembles with a sort of earnestness that you want to believe. Even when it's revealed that Scarlett is descending into the depths of the catacombs to retrieve an artifact to uphold her father's legacy—and it's all you can do not to turn into the *cough cough Lara Croft, Lara Croft cough* dick—I still really, really connected to the character. Perhaps it was the clever casting of Perdita Weeks, an actresses who manages to be so persistent and so driven that you can't blame the doomed party as they crawl head first into the gates of hell.
That's basically the premise: a bunch of incredibly smart kids are led by a crew of Parisian street urchins inside catacombs on a hunt for the magical philosopher's stone. And instead of heading to Diagon Alley, they follow a bunch Indiana Jones meets National Treasure-type clues into the abyss and stumble upon Hell. And it's in this mishmash of historical action versus classic horror where things start to get tricky.
Above ground, it's all Blues Clues for history nerds. Like in any good Da Vinci Code-type flick, Scarlett's historical secrets are hidden within the etchings of famous tombstones or carved into the side of a historical monument. Which is to say, you're not really learning anything about the historical significance of Nicolas Flamel (keeper of the elusive stone) or the study of alchemy, but a lot of pretty people put together ancient puzzles really fast and you feel smart just for being clued in on the chase. In fact, oftentimes Scarlett and her band are spitting out Latin nonsense so fast there's really no way you can keep up. But long story short, the rock moves the wall and look, old scary shit—we're smart!
But this is also where As Above shines. There's no overexplaining, no lengthy monologues about character's backstory. You're given the tools to put the pieces together yourself, particularly where it concerns Pap, the leader of the French catacomb kids (and my personal favorite character), and Scarlett. Sadly, the rest of the crew doesn't get the same kind of light touch with their personal stories, and it's a bummer because the Dowdles are clearly good at this.
The deeper the movie goes underground, the faster the historical puzzle solving gets. The catacombs lead the band into Hell and it's maybe two steps down before As Above, So Below goes full Event Horizon. And Hell brings out the fears inside each traveler within the tunnels, playing on the creepiness of the "this does not belong here" sensation. Imagine your childhood piano appearing around a rocky corner. A ringing phone is just a ringing phone, unless it's sitting on a dusty table hundreds of feet below the earth, inside a giant grave. And when it works, it really works. There's one particular manifestation that was teased just a bit and later blossomed into a glorious horror show. It was really just great.
In the beginning, these fantastical manifestations work with the puzzle-solving reality. The characters' explorations into the Old-World mysticism somehow put them belly-down, crawling through the backdoor of Hell. So the mind trickery works. You keep solving these puzzles, and we're going to keep barraging you with your own personal horror. But the further the crew descends, the less the movie relies on personal demons and the more it just starts to throw random scares at the characters. As Above builds this wonderfully elaborate and dark world, but doesn't fully utilize it. Why take us to Hell if you're just going devolve into a haunted house of jump scares? And as the scares become more and more jumbled, so does the logic behind the historical scavenger hunt that got them there.
That being said, there are a lot of very weird and noteworthy risks As Above takes that do pan out. I was completely enthralled by the last few moments and the manifestation I mentioned earlier. And for a POV horror film, there was plenty that felt fresh and new.
Thankfully, As Above doesn't try to outdo the claustrophobic colossus that is (and forever shall be) one of the best horror films ever made, The Descent. As Above has those spelunking horror moments, but here there is much more of a puzzle-driven, video game-like motivation to get through the maze and win the prize (your life).
Perhaps if As Above spent more time mining the characters for horror and depth, the emotional character crux of the film wouldn't have elicited laughs from the audience, and I would feel more comfortable recommending it. Then again, there's a lot of really ambitious camera work and plot decisions that deserve to be applauded. So that's where I fall on As Above So Below: a lot of good ideas and a lot of bad ideas in one movie.