It’s a rare thing that in 2016 the ‘found-footage’ junk pile can still surprise audiences with a strong premise, ‘As Above, So Below,’ manages to buck the trend of the cliché and deliver a memorably exciting, eccentric and at some points surreal take on the genre. However, when you have studios churning out ‘Paranormal Activity 27: The film franchise that won’t stop until YOU stop,’ to cinemagoers like a disturbed, bow-tied candy-man handing out buckets of ice-cream topped with caramel infused butter to mentally challenged obese children, it can be a hard pitch to sell.
Scarlett (played by Perdita Weeks) is the daughter of a legendary archaeologist, (who we learn has gone mad and committed suicide) searching for the mythical Philosopher’s Stone under the streets of Paris. Despite her youthful looks, Scarlett is a feisty, no nonsense, multi-lingual, archaeological historian looking for the truth of the Stone and through a ‘National Treasure/Tomb Raider,’ style starting voyage, her endeavours lead her to the infamous catacombs under Paris. She enlists the help of language expert George (Ben Feldman), cameraman Benji (Edwin Hodge) and some French underground thrill seekers/urban explorers led by Papillon (Francois Civil), and his companions Souxie and Zed (Marion Lambert and Ali Marhyar.)
The cast is solid for the most part. From the intro, we know that Scarlett is headstrong, bordering on obsessive, as she searches for clues leading to the Philosopher’s Stone. Feldman puts the nervous disposition of his character to good use to juxtapose the audience’s fears onscreen – there are many moments throughout where you’ll be shouting ‘Don’t go in there!’ or ‘Why would you do that?’ so having George as the balanced and solid emotional core to the group pays off. Unfortunately the other cast members don’t fare so well, being used only as tools to keep the POV footage focused on the central three characters (Scarlett, George and Papillon) – the other fault of having over four characters in a group is that you find it hard to care about their arcs, so when their deaths start occurring you’ll only be interested in the way they go out.
As Above, So Below evokes a feeling of being escorted around a haunted house attraction. Creepy girl with bug eyes? Check. Robed figures with ethereal mist smoking around them? Check. Old fashioned rotary phones in places where old rotary phones shouldn’t be? Check. Burning cars that will crumple and disintegrate like the house at the end of ‘Poltergeist?’ Check. The only thing that was missing was a jump scare from a minimum wage teenage worker with clown make-up plastered over his face.
This is the first ever production that secured permission from the French government to film the catacombs under Paris, which is interesting, I guess. Brown envelopes slid under production tables, maybe. The film utilises a set of narrow, winding tunnels complete with authentic skeletons creepily arranged for our protagonists to discover, which is also nice. Director John Erick Dowdle utilises his past filmography (Quarantine) to create a claustrophobic setting, borrowing lessons from Neil Marshall’s The Descent to create moments of utter dread – particularly sequences involving characters squeezing through dark and ominous crevices, outrunning collapsing caverns and diving into dark wells and vermillion pools. Even if you’re not claustrophobic, the violent shakey-cam movements of the group’s camera mounted headgear will either leave you feeling motion sick or fed up with the constant juddering in the dark.
After a preliminary shaky start to their underground exploring (passing what appears to be a cult gathering which they shrug off as ‘weird,’) Scarlett’s group get cut off from their insertion point and are forced to continue downwards and onwards, inadvertently discovering what may or may not be a gateway to Hell. Along the way, they’re confronted with a shopping list of ghosts and one of the urban explorer’s French friend named La Taupe (Cosme Castro). HE’S NOT DEAD. MAYBE.
There are smatterings of religious, mythical and mystical lore that is extrapolated throughout the course of the film, but luckily we have the PhD duo of Scarlett and George to explain to us knuckleheads what they mean. The title of the film comes from Masonic teachings and lore which in turn is based heavily on Christian language and belief, referring to God’s will being carried out both in Heaven and on Earth as he sees fit. There is also an element of Dante’s Inferno when things get a bit Stranger Things with the Upside Down; to escape Hell Dante had to climb down Satan’s hairy belly and into his navel, which – it was believed – was the centre of the earth. This is where gravity is reversed, down becomes up, dogs and cats live in harmony and The Heathrow Terminal expansion has been cancelled.
As Above, So Below also falters at the final hurdle when characters are suddenly explaning past traumatic events that are thrust into the spotlight during the last frantic escape segment – drowned brothers, burnt people in cars, neglectful dads, it’s painfully trying to cram exposition into an otherwise satisfyingly paced film.
The makers of As Above, So Below have proven that the ‘found-footage’ junk pile can be invigorated with fresh energy, and is certainly different in style and content than any other of its form, but if you’re not a fan of the hokey-cokey-shakey-shakey camera then you may feel disorientated and feeling a little sick afterwards. For everyone else, this is well worth a look.
Review by Anthony Self