As Above/So Below is a totally “okay” movie. It’s not entirely successful, but it’s very watchable and entertaining. My tastes have it leaning towards the positive end of the spectrum (hence the 6/10 rating rather than the middle of the road 5/10) because the filmmakers behind this one, the Dowdle brothers (Quarantine, Devil) are doing some really interesting things in this movie that worked for me. The story doesn’t stick the landing (the finale is a bit muddy), but As Above/So Below has a really great leading female character, it has some Lucio Fulci-like weirdness (that could have been taken way further) and it has refreshing mix of horror with Indiana Jones/Lara Croft-like adventure that places it not just above most “found footage” fare, but the tiresome stories driving some horror movies as of late. It’s different even though it relies on some very familiar elements that the savvy horror fans may pick up on a scrutinize.
The film starts with a quite literal bang in Iran where we meet young Scarlett, a woman who is not only highly educated for her age – boasting many degrees in history, alchemy, et al. – but someone who has adopted a strong work ethic much like her late father. Her overall goal is to find a philosopher’s stone, something that has the ability to turn base metals into gold and grant immortality. Scarlett’s father was after it, driven mad by the cause, and now she’s after it. She finds herself in Iran to find a key said to be in the heart of a cave system scheduled for demolition and after an exciting, jarring (I dare you not to jump, I did as did everyone in my row) opening sequence Scarlett is off to Paris where she’s being followed by a documentarian (The Purge‘s Edwin Hodge) who wants to tell the story of her journey.
The Dowdle brothers – John and Drew (John’s on directing duties) – effectively give us an amiable, strong leading character in these opening minutes. She’s highly driven and clever, written with a healthy splash of moxy that keeps the audience interested. Actress Perdita Weeks takes on the role wonderfully. Scarlett is join by Ben Feldman’s George, a guy who breaks into places and fixes things (that’s literally how Scarlett introduces him). When Scarlett calls upon his help to translate her findings in Iran, we see he has worked his way up into the tower of a Parisian church to fix the bell which has not been heard for ages. Again, it’s a strong set-up for an admirable character – a rarity in the genre sometimes that I have to applaud As Above/So Below for.
Through a bit of engaging mystery-solving Scarlett and George theorize that the philosopher’s stone is hidden in a specific, uncharted spot beneath the streets of Paris within the catacombs that serve as the home to 6 million bodies. They recruit a team of French urban explorers to help them out and down they go into the bowels of the city where possible treasure and a heavy dose of “unknown terror” awaits.
Okay, so what you need to know that As Above/So Below is told not just through the documentarian’s camera but through multiple head lamp cams so you’re getting mostly everyone’s POV. It makes for a semi-queasy experience for those with weak stomachs. But in the end, this approach definitely elevates the excitement and fear factor of the film at times. The Dowdles, now pros at found footage after both Quarantine and The Poughkeepsie Tapes, push a lot of the rights buttons to evoke claustrophobia and panic.
But I call shenanigans on two heavily borrowed moments, however.
The first finds Hodge’s character, Benji, in a tight spot that is ripped straight from The Descent. Also, there’s a scene straight out of Quarantine, or I should say REC. Either way, the Dowdles couldn’t help but to repeat themselves for one scene. It works here as well, so I’ll give them that. (I’ll applaud them for finding a way to work a creepy chorus that carries us through one scene in a movie that features no score. Yes, a chorus. It’s a “what the f**k?” moment, but a character in the film explains it away in such a humorous fashion, you can’t help but accept it.)
Execution-wise, there are some other derivative moments and sequences that require you to stretch your belief, but honestly, the film’s journey will have you ignoring them because it’s a rather fast-paced, visceral ride. I simply wish the third act – when the shit really hits the fan – the film didn’t come to a screeching halt for two saccharine-laced character moments that were already felt and didn’t need to be vocalized. And that ending? Well, I don’t want to give much away, but it works and it doesn’t. There are some great visuals on display, but writing-wise it’s so swift and muddled I’m afraid audiences will walk away talking only about the finale rather than the good stuff in the film that came before it.
As Above/So Below was an overall surprise to me in spite of its flaws. It’s a totally serviceable horror film that gets the job done at times in an impressive, imposing environment that the Dowdles fully make the use of. This is their best work to date.