Review – As Above, So Below

As Above, So Below falls into the horror box of films that have an interesting premise that allows me to enjoy a film despite its many flaws and ultimately poor execution. While it is unable to completely pull all of its thoughts together into a well-formed coherent shape in its 93 minute runtime, I still find myself landing on the side of defending this flick because I like all of the half-formed notions going on in the background, despite the fact that most of them are never fully developed.

The film’s trailer would have you believe that As Above, So Below is faux documentary about a group of archaeologists who venture below the streets of Paris into the infamous catacombs – a massive underground labyrinth, now largely walled off, that was used as a burial site in the 18th century. While down there, they unwittingly step into some sort of a hell dimension that plays upon their worst fears and memories, bringing about psychological torture of the worst kind.

All of that is true, but most of it doesn’t really come about until the last 20 minutes of the film. What the marketing left out, is actually one of the things that I found most interesting about the film’s set-up. The story focuses on Scarlett Marlowe (Perdita Weeks), an archaeologist obsessed with completing the research of her late father. The research in question is the quest to finally find the famed Philosopher’s Stone which was supposedly made by Nicholas Flamel back in the early 1400’s. Her findings lead her to Paris, where she is joined by a cameraman (nobody really says why, which is a bit messy), intent on documenting her quest. She convinces a colleague, George (Ben Feldman) to accompany her, recruits a group of bohemian Parisians who have made a hobby out of renegade-exploring the tunnels to be her guides, and off we go.

The film is something of a mash-up between Indiana Jones, Tomb Raider, The Descent and any number of found footage films that have been hitting the market over the past few years. Which is a pretty damn cool mash-up. Unfortunately, the filmmakers aren’t really able to give sufficient time to each branch, which leads to the film feeling rather uneven. Much of the establishment and exposition feels rushed, as does the initial period of exploring the caves.

We never really have that Blair Witch-style period where we (the audience, along with the characters) feel good and hopelessly lost. So much is happening within the story, taking us from one plot point to the next, that the sense of isolation never really sinks in. The characters never have that point where they are hovering on the brink of panic, knowing that they will probably never get out. The filmmakers try to squeeze it in here and there, but it never really has the opportunity to land, since our explorers are off to the next bit of exposition.

The exposition though, is fun. This scavenger hunt is everything that you would you want archaeology to be, yet know probably isn’t the truth. Riddles, puzzles, hidden messages, secret rooms, weird traps – it’s all there. And Scarlett and George’s running dialogue to keep the viewers current on exactly what historical points are being referenced isn’t exactly smooth, but it is entertaining, despite numerous inaccuracies and handful of rather implausible jumps.

Once the shit really hits the fan and it’s time to get right down to the Hellish bits, they don’t feel nearly as well-defined as they should in order to give the scenes their proper weight. These moments could have greatly benefited from more of a slow build than what they were given, and could have trend into some fantastically haunting moments. Unfortunately, that section feels terribly rushed and shallow.

The film comes from John Erick Dowdle and Drew Dowdle, the pair behind the infamous found footage film, The Poughkeepsie Tapes, which screened at a couple of festivals before being acquired and buried. It still hasn’t seen an official release, though rumors are circulating that it may be hitting DVD later this fall.

Ultimately, As Above, So Below wasn’t anything like what I was expecting, and it could have been a whole lot better. But it was still an entertaining film, and I applaud it for doing something out of the ordinary. The found-footage perspective got a little grating at times – the story flowed more like a traditional narrative, so the only reason for it to be shaky-cam at all was for the claustrophobia-enhancing shots once we got down in to the tunnels, which frankly, because a little abused as the film wore on. But overall, I applaud the it for trying a few things that you would never have expected going in. It might not be a theater-necessary watch, but I would definitely recommend a Netflix viewing when it becomes available.