As Above So Below, Ben Feldman, Cinema, Drew Dowdle, Edwin Hodge, Film, Francois Civil, Harry Potter, Hell, Horror, Indiana Jones, John Erick Dowdle, Movie Review, Paris Catacombs, Perdita Weeks, Predators, Prison Break, The Blair Witch Project, The Descent, The Mummy, Tomb Raider
I’ve been looking forward to this film for quite a long time. When I first saw the trailer I thought that it looked like everything I wanted from a horror film, a menacing setting, horrible creatures lurking around every corner, and a sense of terror that seemed as though it would be truly frightening. This film literally wants to take you to Hell, what could be more horrific than that?
Going into this film with such high expectations could’ve potentially set me up for a fall, but I have to say that “As Above, So Below” didn’t disappoint me. It was a difficult film to watch, and I spent a lot of the running time with my hands over my eyes, barely able to see what was happening on screen. The tension which the sound and the setting created, along with what I thought was an intelligent usage of amateur camera work, made for a very interesting and enjoyable experience. I disagree completely with people out there who seem to think that this is an imitator of great films like “The Descent”, because the premise is just completely different. Just because this movie wants to take you underground to build a feeling of claustrophobia and a sense of dread doesn’t mean that it is anything like “The Descent”.
The film was set in what was undoubtedly an amazing location for a horror flick, the Paris catacombs, which hold the remains of no less than six million human beings. As if that isn’t creepy enough on its own, this film also wants to house the gateway to Hell in that very same location! It’s a great idea and something which hasn’t really been explored in any great horror movies before.
The film revolves around Scarlett Marlow (Perdita Weeks), an archaeologist with a slightly frustrating set of skills, which make her somewhat less believable as a character. It feels as though she only has so much knowledge so that we don’t ask questions as to how she can solve ridiculous riddles as quickly as she does, but in fact we just ask different questions, such as, how did she possibly have time to get all these degrees when she doesn’t look a day over 25? Alongside Marlow we have a former lover named George (Ben Feldman), a trio of Parisian miscreants said to know their way around the catacombs, lead by Papillon (Francois Civil), and Benji (Edwin Hodge) the no-questions-asked cameraman.
Together they delve deep under the earth in order to find Nicolas Flamel’s stone, which is said to possess the power to grant eternal life. If you are familiar with “Harry Potter” then you probably know all about the philosopher’s stone, but “As Above, So Below” still remains credible despite the slightly silly goal. However, I feel as though there could’ve been any number of things for Marlow to search for, so I’m not sure why the treasure had to be something we’ve already seen in a childish fantasy. In any case, the search leads the characters into a battle for their lives, as they encounter the demons of their pasts in the devilish catacombs.
“As Above, So Below” also has moments in which it feels a bit like an adventure film, rather than a bona fide supernatural horror. I’ve seen a couple of interviews in which John Erick Dowdle (the director and co-writer of this movie) and Drew Dowdle (brother and co-writer) talk about the fact that the “Indiana Jones” films were an influence on this movie, as well as “Tomb Raider” (considering the strong female lead). It’s clearly apparent that those kinds of influences played a part in the filmmaking process, because before we delve into the real depths of the catacombs this could be a campy action film. It was a really refreshing build up, because it didn’t take itself all that seriously; we gained insight into where the group were headed through some very cool reveals, such as Papillon’s signature tag of “Pap” on the wall. I couldn’t help but smile at how the film was made, it reminded me of watching “The Mummy” as a child, feeling terrified even though nothing was actually happening on screen. I feel as though this movie would’ve been celebrated at that time, and would’ve gotten much kinder reviews.
Despite the fact that I enjoyed the film, I do feel as though it missed a few opportunities. We are left to imagine some of the conflict which relates to the character’s suffering, which is a shame because there was a lot of interesting ideas to develop. The fact that there are several characters going down into the catacombs means that there are several pasts to be explored, and each character should’ve had an interesting back story to delve into.
Obviously the group is chosen partly at random (because Scarlett doesn’t really know that much about Papillon and his team), so for the sake of realism it’s probably better that a couple of them haven’t had amazingly horrible pasts, but I would’ve liked to learn more about the characters and had one or two of them be mysterious or secretly evil. Even a twist where one of the characters actually wanted to lead the others to their demise would’ve been very intriguing, and there’s no reason why this movie couldn’t have done something like that. I’m reminded of the film “Predators”, in which a nasty group of mercenaries and fighters are dropped onto an alien planet in order to be hunted for sport by the iconic titular characters. (SPOILER ALERT) In that film one of the characters turns out to be a little more vicious than he let on, and is actually a serial killer, which was quite a good twist for what was otherwise an average movie. I feel as though “As Above, So Below” would’ve really benefited from something like that, because it did end up being a bit repetitive by the end, and we were simply waiting for the next supernatural creature to sneak up on the group.
I also feel as though this movie might’ve been a bit more enjoyable if less had been shown on the trailer (although the trailer was pretty awesome). There are points in the movie in which potentially brilliant jump scares are ruined by the fact that you’ve already seen what is about to happen on the trailer, which is particularly annoying in a horror film, when surprise is often the best way to get a good scare. However, the parts of the trailer which do give away the game were what got me so excited to see the film in the first place, so it would be wrong to be too critical. If nothing substantial had been shown on the trailer and I had seen the reviews, (which I feel have been unfairly critical), then chances are that I wouldn’t have driven to the cinema for an 11pm late showing of this movie.
Both the beginning and the end of “As Above, So Below” were somewhat weak. The film felt slightly forced at the start, and I feel as though everyone was just waiting for the characters to delve down into the catacombs. The main characters seemed to have super-intelligence in order to get the plot moving forward in what I felt was a rapid pace, and that continued as Scarlett and George solved ancient riddles with consummate ease. (SPOILER ALERT) The ending suffered, as there really is no way to carry on after you’ve faced what these people have faced down in the catacombs. You know that the world is so different than how it appears and your life can never be the same; Hell is real and it’s right under your feet. There wasn’t a convincing happy ending available for this film, so maybe everyone should’ve just died, even if that sounds a tad dark. If you can’t provide an ending which is both uplifting and believable then don’t try to; better to be realistic than to preserve your characters for a life in a mental institute.
The found footage in this movie worked well, which I was surprised by because I don’t usually enjoy that kind of filming. There was a lot of shaky camerawork, but I don’t see why that’s a major problem. The thing that annoys me most about hidden camera films, or films in which people run around with a camera in their hand, is that they’d give up on filming at the first sign of danger. However, in this movie that’s dealt with in a very clever way, even if it’s slightly convenient for saving on budget, because the cameras are placed on the character’s head lamps. They don’t have to think about filming as characters, so everything feels that little bit more real than say “The Blair Witch Project”, in which we get moments where characters insist that the cameras be turned off, and fill screen time with pointless bickering. The way in which this movie was filmed made the claustrophobic scenes feel all that more urgent and uncomfortable, particularly in a moment where Benji is stuck between the catacomb ceiling and a large amount of human remains (a scene which sadly was seen on the trailer).
The only problem I had with the found footage nature of “As Above, So Below” was right at the start of the film, as Scarlett visited Iran for a clue as to where she might find Flamel’s stone. She explained that she could get killed for what she was doing to the camera, whilst a group of people sat around her and could hear everything she was saying. She then continued to film as she ran through a street full of people. I know that she’s a bit of a daredevil, willing to do anything to learn the truth about this stone, but the film doesn’t seem to be her top priority and I don’t believe that she would risk her life or the endeavour to find the stone on filming those moments.
The performances in this movie were all quite good, and I ended up liking most of the characters as a result. I have seen Ben Feldman and Edwin Hodge before, the former in “Silicon Valley” and the latter in “The Purge”, but I hadn’t previously come across the rest of the cast, so they had to win me over. At first I thought that Perdita Weeks was going to be quite annoying, because she was a bit of a know-it-all, but as things progressed she was quite endearing and became very likeable by the end. Francois Civil was the stand out in the film for me, and Papillon was probably my favourite character. He made me laugh in the outside world and he was also very convincing in his dread at the prospect of taking an unmapped passageway through the catacombs. I also think that Cosme Castro deserves a mention for his role as La Taupe. He reminded me a bit of Haywire in “Prison Break”, in that he seemed to be a mentally unstable and broken man, and gave a performance which really highlighted the anguish he must have faced in the deeper parts of the catacombs. He was intense and creepy and did everything you could’ve asked of him for his particular role.
The final thing I’d like to praise in this film is the sound work. There was only five of us in the cinema, so the heightened sound really had an impact on us. The idea of adding trumpets to signify that the dead rising was a great move, it made me wonder what was about to attack the protagonists, bringing a cautious smile to my face as well as a sense of real fear.
“As Above, So Below” is about as good as a horror film gets these days, that’s not to say that it was perfect, but it was certainly better than most of the recent additions to the genre. No one in the cinema was screaming or gasping, instead they were just too scared to watch! I was a nervous wreck on the way home, and that’s owed to the immersive nature of this movie. The story isn’t air tight, but the film uses its found footage element in a very impressive way and you really feel a sense of fear throughout, meaning that this film is never boring. If you enjoy being scared and watching a movie through your fingers then I would definitely recommend “As Above, So Below”.