The 400-Word-Review: As Above, So Below
By Sean Collier
September 15, 2014
Even the curmudgeonly reviewer burned out on the found-footage movement will find little reason to object to the format as employed in As Above, So Below. The horror film fends off every stock criticism of the shaky camera style: “Why does everyone have cameras?” (They’re making a documentary.) “Why can’t they hold them still?” (They’re stumbling through treacherous underground passageways.) “How is it that there’s always a camera trained on the relevant action?” (It’s not — and that amps up the horror.)
Directed and co-written by John Erick Dowdle (he shares the writing credit with his brother Drew), As Above, So Below follows archeologist Scarlet (Perdita Weeks, likable) on a quest for the legendary Philosopher’s Stone; her late father was a leading expert on the history of alchemy, and she’s carrying on his quest to find the artifact. After solving a few riddles and assembling a crew of half-willing compatriots — jittery translator George (Ben Feldman), cameraman Benji (Edwin Hodge), Parisian explorer Papillon (François Civil) and his compatriot Souxie (Marion Lambert), all impressive — Scarlet delves into the Paris catacombs to find her treasure.
The film skillfully blends supernatural terrors (unnaturally shifting passageways, nefarious specters, ancient curses) with universal fears (confinement, darkness, drowning). As Above, So Below is legitimately harrowing at several turns, and draws its greatest scares out of unexplained or intimidating on-screen threats rather than jumps from out of frame. While the adventure plot does slowly abandon logic, the genuine and deft construction throughout will keep audiences transfixed with fear.
Dowdle has demonstrated a knack for confined horror in the past; he fit a whodunit into an elevator in Devil, and trapped a news crew in a zombie-infested apartment building in Quarantine. He’s helped by cinematographer Léo Hinstin, who manages great composition despite the constraints of found-footage, and especially by a production team that turns the catacombs into an old-fashioned Halloween spookhouse. The efforts of production designers (Louise Marzaroli), art directors (Pascal Leguellec) and set directors (Eric Viellerobe) are essential to the horror genre, and often unheralded.
As Above, So Below plays fast and loose with its mythology, as faiths ranging from the ancient Egyptians to the Californian Satanists pop in here and there. But the effective terror and easily-engaging premise more than atone for bits of slapdash theology. When you can make an earthbound film in which your characters believably travel to Hell, you’ve done something right.
My Rating: 8/10
Sean Collier is the Associate Editor of Pittsburgh Magazine and a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association. Read more from Sean at pittsburghmagazine.com/afterdark