As many of you already know, I’m kind of a horror movie nut. Not the gross stuff and not the super schlocky stuff, but give me classics like Psycho and The Exorcist, spooky ghost stories like The Orphanage or The Conjuring, or fun horror-comedies like Shaun of the Dead or Zombieland, and I am a happy camper. For better or worse, I’m also partial to found-footage/mockumentary horrors. Sadly, I’ve been burned by them a couple times this year (see Devil’s Due and/or Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones), yet even so I keep coming back for more.
I was cautiously optimistic about As Above, So Below…until I started seeing some of the reviews for it. Watching the film drop from an 8.0 to a 6.2 on IMDb was a bit of a bummer, yet I’d made plans with a friend and wasn’t about to back out. And you know what? It honestly was not as bad as I thought it was going to be. It’s not going to be winning awards or anything, but there are actually some unique, creepy ideas at its core, and it really does attempt something grander than most found-footage horrors.
Synopsis: “When a team of explorers ventures into the catacombs that lie beneath the streets of Paris, they uncover the dark secret that lies within this city of the dead.” –Borrowed from my favorite movie site, IMDb.
The Good: While I’m a horror nut, I’m also a bit of a classic literature nut, which is why I appreciated the hints of Dante’s Inferno throughout this. Yes, you read that right. Maybe I’m reading a little too much into some moments, but it seemed to me that Dante Alighieri’s tale of one man’s journey through hell was undoubtedly an influence here. There are the more glaring moments, like when the explorers go into a tunnel that has the words “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here” written above the entrance (Dante claims to find that inscription on the gate of hell), but there are a few subtle moments that made me think of The Inferno, too. Bodies reach out from a narrow body of water much like wrathful souls might have reached out to Dante from the river Styx. A hooded figure stalks the explorers in the dark—maybe a reference to the hooded cloaks the hypocrites in hell were made to wear. My personal favorite was a moment that I don’t want to ruin, but it involves a character being buried headfirst with only his feet sticking out, which made me think of a group of sinners doomed to a similar fate (with the added bonus of flames eternally burning their feet). I loved the stuff like this and the other historical and literary references. Alchemy, the philosophers’ stone, and Nicholas Flamel are a focus of the film, which made the Harry Potter nerd in me jump up and down with joy. And leading lady Scarlett (Perdita Weeks) is a pretty tough gal. I read a review somewhere that described her as the child of Indiana Jones and Lara Croft, which is not a bad way to put it. The film as a whole has a constant sense of tension and claustrophobia, which provides a pretty solid tone for horror.
Favorite Scene: If you’ve seen the trailer, you’ve seen this moment, but I’ll say it anyway: Scarlett and co. enter an area with an old piano, and George (Ben Feldman) says that it reminds him of a piano his family used to have. He begins to play a song, saying that he could never finish it because a certain key always stuck. When he reaches that key, it sticks. Somehow, it’s the same piano. Chills.
The Bad: The film has a solid base to build from, yet it unfortunately falls into old, tired found-footage tricks. There are plenty of scares, I suppose, but most of them are cheap, jump scares that aren’t really very scary at all. I mean, if this is really supposed to be hell, I’d expect much worse. As for the characters, aside from Scarlett, we know next to nothing about these people, which makes it difficult to care when they begin getting picked off. Even Scarlett, the character we get to know the most, is not entirely easy to root for because she makes some stupid, stupid choices. She does pretty much everything you aren’t supposed to do in a scary movie. The gal may have the guts of a tomb raider, but she tends to have the brains of a brick. Also, the film vaguely hints at some of the explorers’ greatest sins and regrets, but not nearly enough is done their stories. Hell is supposed to punish them for their sins, but we barely know what their sins are. It’s a letdown not only in regards to character development, but there are several missed opportunities for some cool, “punishment fits the sin” type moments. Other than that, the film suffers from a generally rushed feeling. It takes a while to get to the deepest, creepiest parts of the catacombs, yet once we get there the plot goes by in a hurried blur.
Least Favorite Scene: In the midst of running away from life-threatening danger and severely scary stuff, two characters pause to reflect on their failed relationship, express their regrets, and rekindle that old flame. Excuse me while I go vomit.
To Sum It Up: While As Above, So Below may be the best found-footage film I’ve seen so far this year, that isn’t saying much because it’s still not great. An interesting premise is wasted on the same old humdrum horror that has become the norm for so many recent scary movies. I’m not disappointed that I saw it, but I can’t exactly recommend dishing out money for an expensive movie ticket. If you really, really love found-footage horror, maybe go to a matinee. Otherwise, wait for the DVD.
My Grade: C+