As Above, So Below, a new – brace yourself – ‘found footage’ film from brothers Drew and John Erick Dowdle (the latter takes directing credit) has been promoted squarely with an eye to encouraging horror fans to cough up their hard-earned cash for a spot at the cinema. There’s nothing wrong with that. There’re plenty of legitimately scary moments in this film (more on the nature of those later). But it’s perhaps worth foregrounding here the other elements of this movie that the ads and trailers have been less inclined to talk-up.
For while this trek through the catacombs beneath Paris has its share of shivers, it also has a big, pounding heartful’o’love for the archaeological adventures of a certain Dr. Jones. As much as it looks like The Blair Witch Project, the more apt touchstone for this movie is perhaps Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. This is a welcome surprise, actually, casting As Above… in a more favourable, more openly enjoyable light than so many of its po-faced bedfellows. Quite how these two sensibilities rub up against each other is slightly more problematic.
Meet Scarlett (Perdita Weeks), a plucky, irrepressibly chirpy student of history, languages and, well, everything, who we first encounter snooping dangerously around some caves in Iran searching for a mythical McGuffin. This prologue does little for the film overall other than to establish Scarlett’s blatant disregard for safety or conventional thinking towards laws against B&E, yet the rough’n’ready camerawork up front gives us a good idea of what is to come later.
Following this the film turns, for a spell, into a comparatively well-shot student documentary. Scarlett, reeling off fantasy exposition at a rate of knots, is looking for the, erm, Philosopher’s Stone – a magical wossname of unknown power – something she becomes convinced is buried beneath the streets of Paris. Joining forces with a reluctant former colleague, George (Mad Men‘s Ben Feldman) following another bit of B&E, she assembles a team to take her into the sinuous, unforgiving catacombs beneath Paris. The remainder of the team are sketched in pretty thinly, to the extent that two of them are solely memorable for doing a De Niro impression and being-called-Siouxsie respectively. Nevertheless, we have our band of incredibly young adventures all set, so into the darkness we go.
The tone remains pitched somewhere between what you’d expect for this kind of horror hokum and a more light-hearted, fantastic piece indicative of young adult fiction. Is it a coincidence that not one member of the cast seems older than twenty-five? Indeed another touchstone might even be The Goonies (at a stretch). There’s a palpable sense of young people going off on an adventure that the grown-ups would definitely disapprove of.
The further from the light they get, however, the more this gets muddled with the tropes of modern horror. Creepy women and children lurking in the background mark the first of these boxes getting ticked, yet the Dowdle’s keep their number restrained for the first hour, instead relying on the atmospheric dangers inherent in the situation to do most of the work. Like in The Descent it is the more immediate concerns that build the best tension and terror. Simple factors like getting stuck, running out of supplies or a cave-in ultimately trump the more fantastic elements waiting for Scarlett and her company as they persist in travelling downward.
Evidently feeling that this sort of thing needs to amp up into more supernatural territory, the Dowdles let it all loose for the final run to the finish line, and as yet more exposition hammers home the ideas that the film has already let the audience put together, As Above… loses a lot of the impact its managed to cultivate. The grab-bag of scares thrown at the audience toward the end of the picture lack coherency. Events speed up until it feels like little more than a tumble through a dingy fun house. The film’s ‘secret’ premise (evident in the damned trailer) allows for anything and everything to happen. This final stretch does it’s best to make you jump, but frequently these moments simply feel cheap, and ignite resentment as much as they do fear. After a well-orchestrated build up, it just feels, well, untidy.
It’s not all squandered, however. Despite this murky third-act wobble, the final ‘twist’ of how to get out of this seemingly endless descent is pulled off rather well, and throughout these young actors do their damnedest to sell even the silliest and misplaced exchanges of dialogue (Scarlett and George’s untimely romantic beat in particular). It balances the scales somewhat, allowing As Above, So Below to break even, just-about. And in a year that’s been markedly poor for mass-released horror in cinemas, the Dowdles’ effort at least conjures an atmosphere of unease as much as it goes wholeheartedly for that childlike sense of adventure. Either way, only the most disengaged audience member won’t twig what’s going on the moment they see the scene with a piano, or hear the ringing of a telephone.
Still, it’s all a lot better than The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and if you are keen to see this one, it’s probably worth shelling out for the cinema ticket, as the dark ambience helps markedly in the catacombs sequences, something which will probably lose a lot of its power when the film starts circulating on home streaming services within a year.