As Above So Below
Dir. John Erick Dowdle
Much like the zombie film, the sheer volume of found-footage horror titles, and their varying degrees of quality, has made audiences wary. The risk of experiencing tired retreads consisting of nauseating, shaky camerawork, amateurish acting and low-budget production values is reasonably high. Every so often though, one comes along that reminds you just how exciting and terrifying they can be, and how, when done well, it’s a format which offers filmmakers the opportunity to tell engaging stories in a way that makes them much more immediate and immersive.
While As Above So Below is not without its flaws, it is ultimately a very entertaining and frequently nightmarish title pertaining to be the footage of a doomed excursion into the very bowels of hell itself. Part Indian Jones style adventure, part religious horror, it’s a fascinating concept that is for the most part brilliantly atmospheric and expertly executed by director John Erick Dowdle (no stranger to found-footage scares, having already directed The Poughkeepsie Tapes, Quarantine and the similarly interesting-but-flawed Devil). It may be hampered by tiresome exposition and utterly redundant dialogue that insists on explaining everything, but once it hits its stride, much like The Descent before it, As Above So Below excels in depicting subterranean horror and a sweat-inducing, breathless sense of claustrophobia.
The setting is the vast series of catacombs beneath Paris - revealed to stand upon the gateway to hell itself - and the story follows a small team of historians searching for the Philosophers Stone; a fabled agent with the ability to turn base metal into gold and grant the user life eternal. The team comprises of unconventional experts in their respective fields, kicking against the grain and socking it to The Man every chance they get. We’re told, through very unnatural sounding conversations leaden with exposition, their paths have crossed before; Scarlett (Perdita Weeks) is an archaeologist, historian, chemist and unparalleled expert on alchemy, while her partner George (Ben Feldman) is some sort of retro-engineer who can also translate ancient languages. Which obviously comes in very handy. They’re accompanied by local guides who help them access the catacombs illegally and act as fodder for later encountered terrors.
Even before things take a turn for the surreal, tension is already high given the claustrophobic spaces the team navigate, the oddball vagrants they encounter and the overwhelming sense that they are descending deeper and deeper beneath the city; and further and further away from safety. Spooky shenanigans are initially dismissed as the results of stress, the ill-lit environment, panic induced hallucinations and claustrophobia. Characters whisper of urban legends detailing the mysterious disappearances of individuals who have previously descended into certain parts of the catacombs. Before long all is saturated in ominous dread. From here events become increasingly nightmarish the further they descend. Eventually things start to go wrong and they catch glimpses of the members of a bizarre religious cult lurking in the depths. The creepy atmosphere is enhanced by striking and unusual imagery; a floor comprised of snapping mouths, dark hooded figures skulking in the shadows, pools of blood with the arms of the damned reaching out from the depths. Much of the imagery appears to be inspired by depictions of hell in the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch, Auguste Rodin and Gustave Doré. Viewing such surreal and grotesque imagery through the contemporary medium of digital film and the format of ‘found-footage’ makes for quite a few startling moments. Tension rarely lets up, though at one stage the action (captured as it is in first person POV) resembles a first-person shot-'em-up. As mentioned, As Above So Below is far from perfect, but it’s certainly immersive, atmospheric and very, very tense.