REVIEW - AS ABOVE, SO BELOW (2014)
I must admit that I am biased. I'm not a fan of the found footage genre. In fact, I would say I actively try to avoid it. I don’t think it is inherently lazy, but I do think studios saw it as a way to cut corners and, as should be expected by now, they quickly exhausted the sub-genre. Found footage works best when the story and the medium are inextricably linked. The Blair Witch Project (1999) is a perfect example. Yes, I genuinely mean that. PERFECT. The characters in a found footage film should feel like they could exist outside of the format, but the danger they face should feel immediate and unquestionable. The tools they use to fight against the evil, whether they’re physical or ideological, should also exist within that environment and situation. It seems straight forward doesn’t it?
As Above, So Below (2014) follows a group of urban explorers or journalists or whatever they are, as they sneak into the Catacombs of Paris in the hope of discovering the long-lost resting place of Nicolas Flamel. Yes. Nicolas Flamel. Inventor of the Philosopher’s Stone. Moving on. The team gets trapped in the Catacombs after one of their secret passageways collapses behind them. If they want to get out, they’ve got to go forward. The team treks deeper and deeper into lost and forgotten tunnels where they soon begin to question their understanding of time and space. The use of the found footage approach does heighten the sense of claustrophobia with characters getting stuck in tight places and crushed beneath falling debris, but such things are unsettling regardless of form.
As Above, So Below provides an intermittently scary exploration of the Catacombs of Paris and its adventure-film structure makes me desperately want that 5th Indiana Jones movie to take place in and around the gates of hell. Oh, I didn’t mention that As Above, So Below follows characters as they navigate their way through hell? It is Dante’s Inferno. Take that as you will. It's not horror at its best, but it’s also not horror at its worst. That is an esteemed position I hold for Gingerdead Man 3: Saturday Night Cleaver (2011). That’s a real movie by the way...
As Above, So Below is definitely flawed; the story is too sprawling and complex, there is an extended opening that feels entirely divorced from the subsequent film and the concept is needlessly stretched beyond its own limit. However, the main issue is actually with the characters. The acting is by no means terrible, but the characters are horribly underdeveloped for what the filmmakers are trying to achieve. The third act is utterly dependent on their backgrounds and interior lives. Suddenly, every character has a terrible hidden secret that they must atone for. Drownings, car crashes and missed phone calls. They're all sinners - apparently. These details are introduced like they're supposed to mean something to the film and its audience, but of course they do not carry any weight whatsoever. There is no succinct way to introduce or explore any backstory because the found footage approach limits the film's perspective to the here and now. Instead the filmmakers employ fantastical elements to offer random and far too brief exposition about the explorers. This flaw actually goes so far as to break the found footage format right at the end of the movie. If documentary is cinema truth, then found footage should operate on a level that is believable. That’s not to say the content needs to be based entirely within our understanding of reality, but it should at least feel real to the characters. As Above, So Below, with a randomly CGI-dependent finale, is inconsistent in that regard. However, it does offer 90 full minutes of blissful distraction. What else can we ask for nowadays?
All that is to say I am actually recommending As Above, So Below because in the age of family friendly horror franchises that lack consequence and danger I was pleased to see some characters meet an unceremonious and occasionally brutal end. The bar is low.
As Above, So Below was directed and co-written by John Erick Dowdle with his brother, Drew Dowdle, also contributing to the screenplay. The film stars Perdita Weeks, Bend Feldman and Edwin Hodge. It is available to stream on Netflix.
"I have a child I've never seen. I know it's mine, but I deny it."