by Matt Levine
In the annals of American horror movies about the possible existence of hell and the devils who roam there, As Above, So Below is far inferior to the great one-two punch of Rosemary’s Baby (1967) and The Exorcist (1973), yet considerably more chilling (and fun) than such trite demonic-possession flicks as The Unborn (2009) and The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005). As Above, So Below has the trappings of a painless guilty pleasure—a high-concept gimmick, a grim and claustrophobic setting, a gaggle of semi-likeable characters who meet their demise one by one—but it’s to the film’s credit that it’s actually scarier and fresher than its surface appearance suggests. Most of this year’s horror movies won’t start arriving until October, but so far, As Above, So Below provides the tensest, most stylish scares to be had in a movie theater.
Director: John Erick Dowdle
Producers: Patrick Aiello, Drew Dowdle
Writers: Drew Dowdle, John Erick Dowdle
Cinematographer: Léo Hinstin
Editor: Elliot Greenberg
Cast: Perdita Weeks, Ben Feldman, Edwin Hodge, François Civil, Marion Lambert, Ali Zarhyar, Cosme Castro, Hamid Djavadan
US Theatrical Release: August 29, 2014
US Distributor: Universal Pictures
It helps that the characters aren’t simply cardboard victims, but have an engaging (if predictable) naturalism. Especially important in this regard is Scarlett (Perdita Weeks), the daughter of an academic who specialized in ancient alchemy, and who committed suicide as his search for the Philosopher’s Stone drove him insane. Fabled to turn base metals into gold—and, more importantly, provide rejuvenation and possibly immortality—the Philosopher’s Stone was the ne plus ultra of alchemy, whose purported existence was shrouded in riddle and centuries-old scripture. It seems to have cast its spell over Scarlett, who travels to Iran and then to Paris in search of the legendary stone—which may or may not be buried several hundred feet down in the city’s catacombs. The arcane mystery of alchemy is a much more fascinating subject of horror, to my eyes, than the serial killers and unseen specters that dominate American horror movies, carrying a sinister appeal also exploited by A Field in England earlier this year (in much more interesting ways).
Scarlett is followed to Paris by Benji (Edwin Hodge), a videographer making a documentary of her search for the stone. This “found film” device—which posits the movie we’re watching as POV footage of the events as they happened, supposedly lending authenticity—can be dynamic if composed and edited fluidly, but As Above, So Below’s stylistic gimmick is constraining at times. There are many moments that might have been more terrifying if the camera could move beyond its POV perspective—most notably the climax, which tries to paint a surreally horrifying descent into hell with an aesthetic that obscures much of the horror. That being said, the first-person camera technique does lead to other effective scares (as when unexpected characters pop up unexpectedly in the background of shots) and, at its best, allows us to share in the characters’ sense of discovery.
One of those is George (Ben Feldman), a former lover of Scarlett’s (apparently she literally left him behind in a Turkish prison) who enjoys breaking into dilapidated clock towers and repairing them—an absurd character trait, though at least it reveals his love for history and its artifacts, which assumes a healthier form than Scarlett’s. They’re told to visit Papillon (François Civil), a brooding Parisian known for his prowess in breaking into the catacombs and navigating its deadly chambers. Papillon is a graffiti artist who proudly displays his tags as they first enter the catacombs; his crew are drawn quickly and broadly, first introduced in a ploy for amiability when they try to freestyle rap (and fail immediately). Clearly these characterizations don’t have subtlety or complexity in mind, but at least Scarlett remains surprisingly empathetic—her fear that she’s slowly becoming her father (and paralleling his descent into madness) can be unexpectedly powerful.
As Above, So Below has its rough spots early on, but it hits its comfort zone as soon as it plunges into the catacombs. The piles of petrified bones lining claustrophobic, zigzagging tunnels are a natural habitat for atmospheric horror, though this is one of those areas where the found-footage conceit hampers rather than helps the film’s atmosphere. The sound design—both early on, near the earth’s surface, and towards the climax as the characters enter the Gates of Hell—is admirably complex, a blend of moans, howls, and subterranean drones that’s both predictable and effective (like much of the movie). Inside the catacombs, we also meet one of the film’s more effective characters—La Taupe (The Mole), a former member of Papillon’s crew who disappeared in the catacombs two years ago and reappears as an inexplicably changed man.
Rather than wandering aimlessly around the catacombs, Scarlett leads the crew deeper into its heart by solving a series of convoluted clues from alchemist lore: etchings in Aramaic, Copernicus’ theories of the solar system, Ptolemaic hinges and the mythical inscription above the Gates of Hell (“Abandon all hope ye who enter here”) all feature prominently. At times, the film almost has an Indiana Jones appeal, a love for archaeological riddles and plunging into the unknown, pulp storytelling at its most breakneck (and, often, most illogical).
It would be a lie to say that the movie doesn’t rely on sudden, loud jump scares: there are plenty of these, and although a couple of them are good for a quick chill, they’re undeniably the film’s weakest moments. More effective are the scenes that rely on a sense of claustrophobia (like an early tunneling sequence that might make you forget to breathe) and inexplicable dread (like two scenes involving corpses that appear out of nowhere, splayed out on slabs, several centuries old but with no sign of decay).
Unfortunately, it builds to a climax that’s both inept and hurried: the movie seems to remake its own rules every couple of minutes, and the monsters that confront the characters once they reach the innermost regions of hell are lame and predictable. As Above, So Below ultimately reiterates the cliché of a figurative hell that forces anyone experiencing it to repent and “rectify” themselves (as the movie pompously calls it). For the first hour, the film ratchets up the intensity skillfully, even if it doesn’t break the horror mold; but it’s ultimately content to settle into ghost-story clichés and inane plotting.
But there’s enough of a solid premise and capably suspenseful filmmaking to pull the film through its duller, sillier moments. Critical consensus shows that I’m in the minority: As Above, So Below has been slammed for being clichéd and muddled, and it’s hard to completely disagree. For horror fans who have been starved at theaters this year, though, it’s an exciting, atmospheric B-movie that relies almost as much on genuine terror as on cheap scares. At least until it falls apart in the climax, As Above, So Below does achieve a relatively rare feat for horror movies: it seems to usher us sinisterly into the unknown.