Studio: Universal Pictures
Director: John Erick Dowdle
Writer: John Erick Dowdle, Drew Dowdle
Producer: Thomas Tull, Jon Jashni, Drew Dowdle, Patrick Aiello
Stars: Perdita Weeks, Ben Feldman, Edwin Hodge, Francois Civil, Marion Lambert, Ali Marhyar
Urban archaeologists descend deep beneath the catacombs of Paris in search of Nicolas Flamel’s fabled Philosopher’s Stone.
How will horror history ultimately rank its list of 2014 releases? Contrarians exist for any popularly ascribed opinion, of course. But enough praise has been heaped upon “The Babadook” (review here) to qualify that film as a success, just as enough heads have shaken at “Ouija” (review here) to cement that one as a critical bomb. In between those bookends, the rest of the year’s higher profile offerings have something of a King Solomon sword splitting their collective opinions into disparate halves.
Film festival favorite “Late Phases” (review here), for instance, uses the pull quote “masterpiece” on the top of its poster. Yet The A.V. Club counters with labels of “dreary” and “ludicrous.”
“The Purge: Anarchy” (review here) is another popular polarizer. The New York Daily News’ review contains choice phrasing like “ineffective,” “lazy,” and “ethically questionable cesspool of junk cinema.” Meanwhile, The Hollywood Reporter uses more favorable terms such as “provocative,” “engaging,” and “well-staged.”
Along with “Annabelle” (review here), Exists” (review here), et al., “As Above, So Below” can be added to that bountiful midsection of 2014 horror with an inconclusive consensus balancing a lover for every hater. IMDB message board comments for “As Above, So Below” range everywhere from “best horror movie of the year” to “pointless garbage,” although this sentence technically applies to virtually every film with an IMDB forum. Another website hails “As Above, So Below” as “the scariest movie in years.” Commenters there then hail that reviewer as a “sellout” in conspiratorial cahoots with studio PR.
Myself, I can’t think of what I could possibly want from a “found footage” horror film about urban archaeologists exploring Dante’s Inferno deep beneath the Paris catacombs that “As Above, So Below” doesn’t have. Seamlessly blending the alternate history fiction of “The Da Vinci Code” with “The Last Crusade” and the exploration action of “Assassin’s Creed” with “Tomb Raider,” “As Above, So Below” is a head-on collision of everything thrilling about dark adventure entertainment.
There’s no slow ramp exposition dwelling on townspeople interviews or “get to know everyone” travel montages. Main character Scarlett Marlowe literally hits the ground running in an opening sequence centered on action, complete with ominous klaxons, a haunting hanging, an explosive cave-in, and a patrolling squadron of armed Iranian guards turning the tension to capacity while latecomers are still settling into seats.
From there, the plot unrolls a semi-wacky premise incorporating the real-life legend of Nicolas Flamel and his fabled Philosopher’s Stone, purportedly capable of turning any substance into gold while endowing its owner with eternal life. Equal parts athletic, attractive, and academic, archaeologist Scarlett is determined to fulfill her father’s legacy by locating the stone, said to be hidden somewhere below Flamel’s crypt in the bone-choked corridors of Paris’ catacombs.
Navigating those depths is no easy task, naturally. Enter Papillon as the leader of a sketchy trio of urban explorers, armed with the right amount of knowledge about the off-limits underground and the right amount of French street sense to be colorful complements to Scarlett’s triad of documentarian bookworms. Deeper into the darkness the sixsome descends until ending up in a gravity-defying mirror world suggesting they may have crossed the threshold into Hell itself.
Their ever-spiraling journey tumbles the team past displaced cultists in “Clan of the Cave Bear” makeup, the unusually intact corpse of a dead Templar knight, robed ghasts seated in random wooden chairs, and any number of assorted visualized nightmares personalized from traumatic memories. Somehow, a loose logic connects the imagery as fitting the charm of the charnel caverns even if the mythology never fully articulates the complexities threading it all together.
Fantastic tunnel locations take the atmosphere far. Terrific production design takes it further still with false floors and hieroglyph plates fashioned for a look between reality and “Raiders of the Lost Ark” prop. “As Above, So Below” bridges those worlds of “found footage” fakery and fantasy fiction in both art direction and creative concept.
Dissenters can crack obvious jokes about perceived adolescent appeal, but director John Erick Dowdle and his co-writing brother Drew have intentions to capture Indiana Jones-like tension and matinee serial suspense, all while using an R-rated horror hook. They do so with imagination and intensity that crackles from each new riddle solved to the next secret passage plumbed.
The Dowdle Brothers don’t think they’re pulling one over on anybody when the characterizations become cliché, and neither do the actors. Everyone is aware that the goal is high entertainment, not high art, and occasionally it may take a cheat to advance the movie to its next suspenseful setpiece.
Perdita Weeks is so personable that her singularly focused overachiever of a spelunking professor is never as annoying as the archetype has every right to be. Ben Feldman defies the rule against casting familiar faces in “found footage” and jumps his hurdle through sheer force of amiable screen presence. Edwin Hodge of “The Purge” features in a legitimately breathtaking scene of asthmatic hysteria. Meanwhile, Francois Civil asks, “are we dead?” so matter of factly when the mania hits feverish levels that it is clear everyone is dialed into a precise tone between freakish frights and filmic fun.
Having already impressed with “The Poughkeepsie Tapes” and their “Rec” remake “Quarantine” (review here), “As Above, So Below” equates The Dowdle Brothers with “found footage” on a level where James Wan is synonymous with haunted house horror. Satisfying through supernatural scares and claustrophobic chills, the film’s combination of “The Descent” meets Dan Brown captured in a “Blair Witch Project” net makes for a unique horror adventure that is always twisting forward with slow terror or tight thrills. As far as “found footage” cavern scares go, I don’t know how “As Above, So Below” could bring any more to the table.
Review Score: 90