The awkwardly titled As Above, So Below is another addition to the recent trend of found footage horror movies, this time brought to us by director John Erick Dowdle, who also co-wrote the script with his writing partner, producer and brother, Drew Dowdle. You may recognize their names from their work on The Poughkeepsie Tapes, Quarantine and Devil. As Above, So Below follows Scarlet Marlowe (Perdita Weeks) a young archeologist with a very high pedigree and a desire to find the Philosopher’s Stone. She pinpoints a possible location of the stone beneath Paris and the only way to get there is by going through the Catacombs, so with the help of her friend George (Ben Feldman) and a group of people knowledgeable of the pathways in the Catacombs led by Papillon (Francois Civil), as well as documentarian Benji (Edwin Hodge), they go beneath the surface to uncover something much more sinister waiting for them.
Given the hilariously awful misfire that was Devil, it seems like the Dowdle brothers wanted to get back into more familiar territory with the found footage subgenre that they used with Quarantine, which effectively put them on the map, and As Above, So Below does show some improvement in their craft. On a purely fount footage level, the camera placement and consistency is adequately handled, with the footage being taken from either a camera used by Benji or the mini-cameras that he installed on other characters’ helmets as they go into the Catacombs. This way, the question of why is all the footage being taken or why aren’t they putting the camera down rarely come up as the film goes on. Although there are some strange ways the film deals with the lighting and how the cameras on the helmets actually work, but it’s a small detail that the film often breezes by without a notice. And while, it isn’t the best found-footage movie I’ve seen this year, the near first-person perspective that the helmet cameras provide do add to the sense of claustrophobia during the film, making them appropriately tense when it needs to be. Equal praise goes to the sound design, which was also very well done, at least when it doesn’t do the obligatory jump-scare sting.
The problems of the film fall mostly with the script, which almost feels like it could’ve been a Tomb Raider movie a few rewrites ago before the studio lost its rights or something, not to mention how Scarlet Marlowe is basically Lara Croft (and hey, if Perdita Weeks ever gets a shot at actually playing Lara Croft, I would totally get behind that). Like with a lot of modern horror film, there are going to be some gaps in logic here and there, but the biggest fault of the script is in how it handles its main theme and the way the characters grow through it. The core of the film is about the characters dealing with the past and the various mistakes or traumas that haunt them over time. On paper, it’s a clever way to integrate interesting character drama about facing personal demons with a literal, Dante’s Inferno-esque decent into hell. Unfortunately, the script is not able to handle that since there is hardly any set-up for the moments where the characters face their issues head-on. Many of those moments are not given much context and when they are, they are given at the same time when the payoff is supposed to be. So there is no real build up for the characters, and given the lack of set-up for practically every character except Scarlet, it comes off as lacking in any emotional engagement. It did seem like a severe missed opportunity when the film does not allow the characters to really grasp and openly talk about their problems and how they seem to connect with the things that keep mysteriously popping up in the Catacombs. It’s honestly the one glaring flaw that prevents me from considering As Above, So Below a good film. I admire the approach, but the sloppy and backwards execution just showed how interesting and personal the film could have been, had the script been handled with more care.
Aside from the mostly solid execution of the found footage style, the other positive I have to say about the film is that the performances were good, especially given the material the actors had to work with. As I briefly mentioned before, Perdita Weeks does a really good job at making me buy that she is this extremely intelligent person who also courageous and willing to face danger in her quest for knowledge. The supporting cast also does a good job too, no one stood out as annoying or obviously subpar in their performance, and they were able to sell the intensity of the situation that they get themselves into. Again, this is despite the fact that the actors weren’t really given the best writing. Just don’t expect anything awards-worthy. There were some genuinely intense moments and some nice use of creepy imagery. So, while I wouldn’t consider the piece as a whole very scary, I’ll say that it did have its moments.
As Above, So Below is a prime example of a mediocre horror movie. It is not terrible enough to warrant any anger, but not really good enough to give a whole-hearted recommendation. It’s sufficiently watchable at best. Some good performances from the actors and a few creepy moments with some decently executed found footage filming do just enough to keep the journey entertaining enough before you look back after it’s over and realize that certain elements don’t quite work. So, make of that what you will. If it seems like I’m being easy on this movie, it might be due to the fact that Leprechaun: Origins came out recently. If you want something really mind-bogglingly bad, then at the very least you’ll be remembering how awful that movie is, rather than forget how forgettable As Above, So Below was.
Side Note: OK, so it’s not the best year for horror movies so far, but there have been a few good ones. Oculus was probably the only good studio horror movie I’ve seen this year. There are more good ones in the independent world. Wolf Creek 2 was very good, just as good as the first, but in a different way. There’s a very little known indie called Shock Value, which is more of a horror/comedy that follows a z-grade indie director that blackmails a serial killer into starring in his next film. It’s a lot of fun in that low budget, sleazy 80’s kind of way. Coherence is a sci-fi thriller that kind of has the backbone of a horror film, and that movie begins with some friends having a dinner party which takes a very bizarre, reality-shifting turn. I definitely recommend that as a great exercise in minimalist filmmaking. If you’re in the mood for a found footage film, then The Afflicted is definitely worth checking out. It’s easily the best found footage movie I’ve seen this year. Granted it’s only September, there’s still more to come, so hopefully we’ll get some better horror movies.