And now, a dramatic interpretation of a how a hypothetical pitch meeting for the As Above, So Below script might have started:
“It’s The Descent meets [REC] meets Grave Encounters meets Buried meets National Treasure.”
“Love it. I bet we can get that guy from Cloverfield for the male lead.”
“But we can still terrorize the sole black character by putting him in the most danger early on, right?”
“Of course! What else are horror movies for!?”
“Huzzah! Let’s make movies!”
All right, so I have no idea how pitch meetings actually work. Nonetheless, that’s a fairly accurate description of As Above, So Below. The movie wraps a plot largely reminiscent of many of its other horror siblings up in a shiny bow of a premise that adds a layer of National Treasure discovery and mystery. Looking at the bow alone, you have to compliment the effort made in the packaging of this horror present.
The film tells the story of Scarlett Marlowe (Perdita Weeks), an alchemy scholar (I know…alchemy scholar. But stick with me, this premise is pretty good for a horror movie). Scarlett strives to continue her father’s work of searching for Nicholas Flamel’s Philosopher’s Stone, a mythical relic with the miraculous ability to maintain youth.
Through some breaking and entering in Iran, Scarlett uncovers a key with the potential to get her closer to the stone than ever before. Tapping her former lover George (Ben Feldman) and cameraman Benji (Edwin Hodge), the trio deduce (through a poem/riddle written in Aramaic that still somehow rhymes when read in English) that the stone must lay somewhere in the catacombs of Paris. With the help of knowledgeable catacomb dweller Papillon (Francois Civil) and two of his buddies, they break into the catacombs in hopes of finding their treasure.
What follows is a claustrophobic (think Buried or The Descent) supernatural labyrinth (think Grave Encounters) of a ride through the cramped corridors of the Parisian underground in which the band of grave robbers must continue traversing downward to survive. The gang “circles back” to rooms they have already encountered in a loop of literal insanity, creating an air of panic and confusion. This hellish landscape borders a little too close to an actual Hell, a precipice that divides the film in half outright. When we hear the immortal words of Milton: “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here,” the juicy mythology of the premise is in our rear view, and we are left with a devolution into the standard tropes of found footage horror. We have undone the pretty red ribbon and are left with a plot worthy of re-gifting.
The engaging premise now muddled by frantic camera movements and panting actors, we lose the one aspect of As Above, So Below that separates the movie from its genre predecessors.
The cinematographic limp that is shaky cam is not hidden well under the blanket of fast pans and artificial cut-outs. This limp drags harder against the ground in the latter half of the film, when the scares are wholly dependent on the jarring camera movements and inexplicable cuts in and out of black.
Minor points that appear in the early scenes of the film which help jog our interest in the characters, such as the “we don’t talk about it” burn scar on Pap’s hand or the dead brother of George, are not utilized to give the characters depth, as one would hope, but instead are used to set up fatal scares later in the movie. In this way, the characters serve no intrinsic purpose beyond being fragile meat puppets who remain constantly out of breath.
This point is particularly disappointing given the novel conceit of the film. The notion of the characters’ haunting pasts is so ingrained in the proposed terror of the setting. When you’re in Hell, all you can do is delve deeper. Deeper into the catacombs of your worldly sins and sufferings. As above, so below. The literal catacombs and their mirrored counterparts are, more profoundly, a symbol of the repetitive insanity that comes with living with memories of, say, a dead brother. The Philosopher’s Stone may heal the wounds of the mortal body, but, as fantastical as it is, it is a superficial object that will never be able to heal the scarring wounds of the conscience.
Unfortunately, we don’t get this meditation on mistakes and regret that could induce true fear in us. Instead, we are given a third act rife with pools of blood and jump scares. Don’t get me wrong, I can be a sucker for pools of blood and jump scares, but this movie promises in act one to be so much more. That is where the disappointment lies. The idea is planted that the stone, an object of fantasy and wonder, is nevertheless a useless pebble when it comes to swallowing the bitter pill of regret. The horror of As Above, So Below should have been found in the reality that is living with the pains of past transgressions, but instead it is found in the combination of manic sprinting and sudden violence.
As drawn in as I was in the first half of this film by the mythology and perfect setting of events for a found footage horror movie, I was severely disappointed by the end result. The final 20 minutes is a jumbled barrage of semi-intelligible climax that culminates in a supremely underwhelming conclusion. So much could have been expanded upon from the first half of the film that I am baffled at how it ended. I won’t give any major plot points away, but the final twist of the narrative is nonsensical and out of left field.
I truly wish that I could have left this movie satisfied. This is one of the few instances where I will say that a horror movie should have a sequel. If someone else were to helm this premise and do it justice with a new narrative that follows the mythology rather than the cheap scares, then this Flamellian horror tale could be something really great. Until that happens, though, I cannot recommend a movie with the title As Above, So Below.
I may not have enjoyed As Above, So Below fully, but perhaps you will think differently. If you want to check out the film, it can be found on Amazon through the links below:
As always, thanks for reading!
Have you seen As Above, So Below? If so, what did you think? Let me know in the comments!
–Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)