Perdita Weeks stars as Scarlett, a young alchemy scholar in search of the mythical philosopher’s stone, an artifact said to give it’s wielder power that ranges from transmuting lead into gold to even eternal life. And after obtaining a few final clues as to the stone’s location, Scarlett gathers a small group of friends and local guides before venturing into the catacombs beneath Paris. But the deeper they go, the stranger and more perilous the journey becomes. And the closer they get to the truth of everything, the less likely they’ll ever see the light of day again…in As Above, So Below.
As Above, So Below, from writer-director Jason Erick Dowdle–the same man who brought you movies such as No Escape, Quarantine, and The Poughkeepsie Tapes–is simultaneously one of the best found-footage horror films period and a movie that, ninety-nine percent of the time, absolutely doesn’t need or effectively uses such a tired gimmick. Oddly enough, the tense scene that exists in that remaining one percent is also one of the best uses of the found-footage motif.
As a whole, the movie is effectively an adventure-horror story about a group of young adults unwittingly venturing into the depths of Hell for the sake an Indiana Jones-styled MacGuffin. It swiftly opens by introducing the idea of the stone itself, setting up the adventure ahead, and upholds the religious and supernatural nature at the center of it all. Perdita Week’s Scarlett then just as quickly gathers her crew and pieces together the clues to the stone’s location before diving right into the catacombs of Paris. Once there, we witness a number of tense, unsettling events that sees the group of adventurers descending into ancient tunnels and chambers lined with both treasure and religious iconography. And all the while dealing with various puzzles, traps, and the mysterious hooded figures and nightmares lurking in the shadows.
In short, As Above, So Below is a strange but fun mix of Indiana Jones, The Blair Witch Project, and Dante’s 14th-century epic poem, Inferno. And for the most part, it works. The movie is quick-paced, exciting, terrifying, and clever with the way it tests and tortures its cast of troubled characters. The characters themselves are fleshed out just enough and performed in a more subtle, realistic fashion. It also lacks many of the artificial arguments and pointless conflicts seen in a lot of similar movies, ensuring the movie always presses onward instead of having the characters awkwardly bickering in the same spot for several minutes for the sake of padding the run time. There’s always something of note happening. The characters always have something to say, do, and overcome right until the very end.
In fact, if the movie is lacking anything, it’s the sort of cheap scares found-footage films often rely on. I can’t recall a time when something frightening appears or happens off-screen only for it to never be properly shown to us. Rarely does the film feel like a first-person run through a haunted house. Nor does it attempt to make you question whether what you’re seeing on screen is supposed to be real or the panicked misinterpretation of its characters. There are still plenty of scares to be had–both fun and intense–but they’re organic and fully presented.
Unfortunately, as with nearly every found-footage horror film after The Blair Witch Project, As Above, So Below lazily rationalizes its own motif.
In the context of the film itself, there’s no real reason why the characters are filming themselves, especially given the amount of criminal activities they’re admittedly engaging in during the film, from defacing historical sites to trespassing. It might make sense for characters in such a situation to take photos of their adventure and findings, maybe even a few brief video clips. In fact, there’s only one shot very early in the movie, in which Scarlett properly introduces herself, that even remotely resembles a documentary. Every scene before and after this is little more than shaky camera footage quickly spliced together. And unlike movies like The Blair Witch, why and how all this footage is recovered and edited together after the events of the film isn’t explained. The movie literally walks away from the whole idea of it by the end.
If Dowdle made the conscious decision to use this particular framing device, for as dated and tired as the gimmick might be after nearly twenty years, then there should have been some real effort to do something of note with it. The shaky-cam look is fine, as it gives the film a more grounded, realistic feel. But Dowdle actively ignores it for most of the film. At times, especially towards the end as things are at their most frantic, the found footage approach actually slows things down and makes things incredibly hard to follow. In fact, there are a few shots wholly ruined because it’s little more than the camera wildly flailing about rather than focusing on anything at all.
Personal gripes about stylist choices aside, As Above, So Below is an enjoyable little movie that focuses more on being fun, strange, and unsettling than constantly making you squirm in your seat or getting you to scream. It’s far from the scariest horror film available today. But it is one of the most original and approachable horror movies for those who might usually avoid such things.
As Above, So Below is a welcomed and wholly refreshing CHILL.