As Above, So Below

An allegorical thrill ride that manages to subvert many of the clichés and pratfalls of the found footage genre, As Above, So Below will probably remind a lot of people of The Descent or, well, The Cave, but it’s a smarter movie than both of those — especially The Cave — and it probably generates a greater sense of sustained suspense, too. This is a tense movie, even when not a whole lot is happening.

The setup is thus: Scarlett (Perdita Weeks) is a brilliant — two PhDs and one Master’s degree, along with a black belt attest to this — alchemy scholar who is continuing on her late father’s work by trying to find the fabled philosophers’ stone. After a clue is discovered in Iran, during which time she’s almost buried alive, she heads to France along with a documentary filmmaker named Benji (Edwin Hodge), because that’s where it’s believed the stone is hidden. The only problem? It’s some 300+ feet below the surface of the Earth. But we’re in Paris, and the Catacombs are here. Enlisting the help of a former friend, George (Ben Feldman), and a trio of local explorers (François Civil, Marion Lambert, and Ali Marhyar), we’re going to find that stone if it kills us!

And kill us it tries. Almost immediately, the Catacombs start playing tricks on our leads. A tunnel collapses, another one appears that isn’t on any maps, a long-lost friend has somehow survived two years underground, hallucinations are everywhere, claustrophobia begins to set in, equipment is lost, and, eventually, people start dying. The least important crew members die first, obviously.

Things don’t start going really wrong until the last half hour of the picture, because escalation is a thing and done right it provides a heart-pounding conclusion. And most of As Above, So Below does keep the heart rate at an above-resting pace. You’re never sure what’s going on in the Catacombs — references to the gates of Hell are made as the crew heads further and further down — and there are slight paranormal aspects that make you wonder what’s real and what isn’t — or what’s possible and what’s impossible.

I opened by claiming that As Above, So Below is an allegorical film, and you’ll see what I mean if you see it. It’s a way that the film can kind of hand-wave away some inconsistencies or gaps in logic, and I like the way it worked. It also provides for some initially silly-looking scenes near the end — ones that only really make sense if you think about the various … apparitions as allegorical and not literal. It makes the film better, and makes the ending feel less of an anti-climax.

As Above, So Below does a couple of things to separate itself from other found footage movies. The best decision its filmmakers made was to have a camera attached to each of the characters’ head flashlights, because it allows us to get a variety of perspective and not constantly wonder “why is he/she still holding the camera” — even if that thought does still occur, as Benji has a handheld camera for most of the film, too. The ending is also different from most found footage affairs, which might initially come as a disappointment but in thinking about it more is actually quite refreshing.

It’s easy to make comparisons between As Above, So Below and similar films like The Descent. I mean, this film has its lead character get covered in blood seemingly just to copy when The Descent did it. I wish I was kidding, but that’s what it looked like — and it took me out of the experience. There are differences, sure, but if you didn’t like The Descent, you’re probably not going to be much of a fan of this one, either.

As Above, So Below is a thrilling movie that keeps the heart rate up for the vast majority of its running time, which is something most horror/thriller films are unable to say. It’s got a constant stream of suspense, does enough to separate itself from other found footage movies, and offers more than a couple of surprises. It might remind some viewers too much of The Descent, but it’s a different movie and perhaps a smarter movie, too. I had lots of fun with it.

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