Written by: John Erick Dowdle and Drew Dowdle
Directed by: John Erick Dowdle
Starring: Perdita Weeks, Ben Feldman, and Edwin Hodge
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
The only way out is down.
Hell is typically a physically grueling proposition, particularly if you’ve been raised in the Deep South, where hellfire and brimstone are lorded over you right out of the womb. But failing that, Jigoku--arguably the greatest cinematic representation of the underworld--is most infamous for its “torments of hell” sequence where sinners are literally torn apart for their transgressions. More striking than that the groundbreaking violence, however, is the utter bleakness surrounding those sinners (I suspect Lucio Fulci was similarly impressed): something about the eternal emptiness and existential dread of it all is far more unsettling. All of this is a roundabout way of prefacing the moderate effectiveness of As Above, So Below, the latest found footage horror flick that only finds itself in this sort of company because it also posits that Hell isn’t just a place but a state of mind (sort of like Delaware but not as balmy).
Just bothering to engage in the psychological over the physical is a refreshing choice, and there’s actually something deeply unnerving about the film, which follows the exploits of Scarlet Marlowe (Perdita Weeks, who plays the obsessed-to-the-point-of-self-destruction role with ease), a ludicrously educated archeologist dedicated to tracking down the Philosopher’s Stone. Her travels take her from Iran to France, where she gathers a team of local urban explorers to guide her through the catacombs running beneath Paris. With a cameraman and an ex-lover also in tow, she enters the hidden, forbidden crevices of the popular tourist attraction and unleashes an impossibly labyrinthine and inescapable hell.
I’m admittedly as burned out on found footage as much as the next guy, but As Above, So Below proves that it doesn’t take a whole lot to reinvigorate an exhausted formula or style. With the exception of a conceit that allows for multiple viewpoints (everyone in the tour group is outfitted with GoPro cameras), the film actually doesn’t stray too far from the template set forth by The Blair Witch Project in terms of establishing an intriguing mythology and drawing audiences in with a spooky concept. Granted, its backstory is more exotic and globe-spanning (the early-going here actually resembles National Treasure more so than Paranormal Activity and its ilk), but it’s no less elemental and primal: diving into the French Catacombs isn’t exactly as universal as some scary-ass backwoods, yet it hardly matters once the characters make their descent.
Director John Erick Dowdle (who co-wrote alongside brother Drew) is no stranger to the genre, having helmed The Poughkeepsie Tapes, Devil, and Quarantine, with the latter two showing a lot of promise (and the former infamously showing, well, nothing to date). As Above, So Below works like a well-oiled machine in this regard, as Dowdle especially has a firm handle on escalation. Before resorting to overtly creepy (not to mention gory) stuff, he sets an oppressively eerie mood with ominous sights and sounds. Many familiar signposts dot the path: portentous inscriptions, piles of human bones, and overbearing claustrophobia (one sequence in particular is a panic attack waiting to happen for extreme claustrophobes). Less expected is the presence of a creepy-ass, whose unholy incantations score the proceedings, plus the reemergence of a long-lost explorer who has been driven mad by his time spent in this purgatorial underworld.
That it’s more purgatorial than fiery is key. The Dowdles’ conception of hell isn’t the sort that’s preached about from the pulpit; rather, it’s more like a carnival fun house, full of twisty, logic-defying architecture. The groups’ first clue that something is amiss comes when they suddenly find themselves going in circles, seemingly forced by some unseen presence to enter uncharted crooks and nannies. Most disconcertingly, they’re compelled to trek further downwards on multiple levels: the big hook here is that their experience forces them to confront their own regrets and buried secrets. With all due respect to Sartre, Hell here is yourself. Well, that and ravenous rock monsters acting as the apparent herald for an enigmatic grim reaper figure wandering the bowels of this joint.
While the appearance of these otherworldly creatures clashes with the perfectly effective psychological approach, they’re not completely unwelcome intrusions. Dowdle smartly flits around them to maintain the air of mystery demanded of this sub-genre, and the physical threats provide some sharp gore and decent jolts. Even when the film is forced to degenerate to this basic stuff, it works because its breathless energy captures the bewildered desperation of its characters—as they continue to encounter more portals leading them further downward, their anxiety becomes even more palatable. Between this and its suffocating aesthetic, As Above, So Below achieves a genuinely oppressive atmosphere that works in tandem with an effective story with actual, horrifying themes—for about eighty minutes, it borders greatness because the utter hopelessness of the situation is overwhelming.
I don’t want to say that the Dowdles blow it with the ending, but it can hardly be said that they stick the landing. Saying that they even land might be generous—it’s more akin to kind of exhaustedly stumbling at the finish line and just petering out. With its breath having expired and its ideas drained, As Above, So Below opts for a typically curt found footage ending, albeit one that’s maybe a little less ambiguous and maybe even less despairing. There’s a lot of maybes, though, and though I’m hesitant to completely dismiss it for its brain-teasing possibilities, the resolution is a bit of a disappointment. For a movie to be so legitimately spooky, it’s a shame that it leaves you more perplexed than unsettled. Of course, a film that leaves you scratching your head in an inquisitive manner is preferable to one that compels you to just check your brain at the door as you tour some scary catacombs. Either way, As Above, So Below is a hell of a ride, at least. Buy it!
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