As Above, So Below was directed by John Erick Dowdle (The Poughkeepsie Tapes, Quarantine), and co-written by John and Drew Dowdle (No Escape, Waco), and stars Perdita Weeks (Magnum P.I., Ready Player One), Ben Feldman (Friday the 13th, Cloverfield), Ali Marhyar (Zero Dark Thirty, Porn in the Hood), Francois Civil (Who You Think I Am), Edwin Hodge (The Tomorrow War, Bumblebee), and Marion Lambert. It’s about a group of explorers attempting to escape the catacombs beneath Paris.
The Plot: Reinvention of the wheel is a fair way to describe As Above, So Below since it takes a relatively basic series of claustrophobic events and combines them with a story; something nearly every other spelunking horror has neglected to do. Scarlett (Weeks) has ventured to Iran and found the Rose Key, one of the last clues to finding the Philosopher’s Stone.
Now in France, she has Benji (Hodge) document her travels, and George (Feldman) to translate the symbols. Upon finding out the stone is right under Paris, she enlists further help from explorers Papillon (Civil), Zed (Marhyar), and Siouxie (Lambert) to take them below and find the stone. Predictably, the group is trapped inside the catacombs. However, unpredictably, they must go down to get out; with each significant drop in depth the world twists and tests the group’s limits in a Dante Alighieri-esq descent.
The Characters: Again, the Dowdle brothers have changed the formula for the better by finally providing As Above, So Below with likeable, if not especially complex characters. A handful of them are clearly fodder, sure, but none of them are despicable enough to warrant chants for their deaths. Scarlett is perhaps too OP. Fluent in four languages, a professor with a Ph. D., a symbols expert, and nearly fearless. Her father was renowned for his studies of alchemy, which drove him to obsession and eventual death. Scarlett’s goal is noble: find the truth and restore his reputation.
George is a B&E specialist who fixes old monuments and a sometimes partner, sometimes romantic flame who had travelled with Scarlett before; but after being stuck in a Turkish prison (no that’s not an Airplane! reference. I think.) went his own way. Papillon is a thrill-seeker that has found a way to profit off his experience in the catacombs, taking people down for a price and with a limit. Benji is essentially a worrisome camera and the other two are just there.
The Horror: Plenty of different aspects make the scares in As Above, So Below work, but most of the legwork is done with parallels to Dante’s Inferno and by tying in the backgrounds of the characters to the present. As the characters go off-track (or on track according to Scarlett) they come across a path that has been closed off and steeped in superstition after a friend of Papillon’s who lived in the catacombs went in and never came out. All other options are exhausted and once they go in, they must go down.
For lack of a better word, each “level” is inspired by Dante’s Inferno, which not only adds variety to the scares but is also another way for those who know of it to enjoy As Above, So Below; but elevates the progression by default. Spatial logic gets looser and butts get tighter as the outlet of escape gets closer and may or may not even be feasible. Linking the levels of “Hell” and by proxy, sin, also adds depth to the characters as they unravel and admit (or perform) their wrongdoings. It’s smart writing even if some of the scares are cheap.
The Technics: Mileage is gotten out of the fact that most of As Above, So Below was filmed in previously unseen areas of the Parisian catacombs. For those who have seen or been there, this addition of the unknown ups the sense of adventure that permeates the movie. Found footage Indiana Jones. The atmosphere that shows so clearly is smudged a bit by the references to ancient Egypt in French catacombs.
Myself not knowing much about Nicolas Flamel (the historic figure who is alleged to have created the Philosopher’s Stone) may be at fault for being ignorant of his potential adventures but the plot pointing to a place so far from the setting feels a bit like the Dowdles got to a point where they wanted to combine cool stuff. The pacing does eventually collapse (get it?) too. The third act gets overblown and the conclusion feels rushed, As Above, So Below could’ve done with 5 more minutes to elaborate on the reveal about Scarlett.
As Above, So Below is a mostly successful movie that benefits from authenticity and creative references to famous literature. For a popcorn horror movie, especially a found footage horror movie, this is hard to beat.
As Above, So Below is available on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital from Universal Pictures Home Entertainment.