Overview: Two archaeologists gather a makeshift team to search for treasure in the catacombs of Paris and find themselves in an unthinkable situation. Legendary Pictures/Universal Pictures; 2014, Rated R; 93 Minutes.
Flatly Stated: This movie is a fucking nightmare. In horrorspeak, that’s a compliment. It is a brutal assault on every sense utilized within the movie going experience. Had the film’s budget been able to cover it, Director John Eric Dowdle would have hired stand-ins to slap unsuspecting attendees in every theater.
The first person, found footage narrative perspective allows for unnerving use of blinding light and smothering darkness. Imagery is borrowed from a wide range of horror sources (and I don’t mean exclusively film sources) – child ghosts, crookedly disfigured adult ghosts, ghosts on nooses, flames, hooded demons, rock monsters, dusty and antiquated household tools and instruments, walls made of ancient human remnants, corpses, cult figures – as thorough an illustration of hell as you can expect to find in a wide-release theater film.
The sound editing is malicious and unnerving, employing every weapon from the shrillest of screams to emulating literal deafness. And in between: whispers, piano tunes, the singing of a cult choir, the rumbles of unstable cavernous structure – every sound in this movie is designed to heighten anxiety. If awards committees were evenly concerned with all genres and respecting of the unique ambitions of horror movies, then Oculus and As Above, So Below would collect a slew of technical awards for film editing and sound editing, respectively.
Derp Factor: As bold as the film is in its commitment to its hellish landscape and construction, As Above, So Below is evidently stronger in execution than planning. While it makes practical use of its characters’ cameras, it fails my found footage test by not providing an answer to two of the three basic questions (Why are they filming? Why do they keep filming? And how/why is the footage found and edited?).
And as intelligent as its characters seem to be, the film is not very smart. Perdita Weeks stars as Scarlett Marlowe, the central figure in the film who is something of a Silent Hill version of Lara Croft. The movie’s opening permits Scarlett to rattle off an extensive list of degrees, accomplishments, and certifications, licensing her early on as perhaps the sharpest scream queen to ever drive a horror vehicle. But Scarlett’s intelligence comes and goes to appease the needs of the script (penned by the director with his brother Drew). Even as Scarlett proves crafty enough to recognize and solve ancient puzzles in seconds, she doesn’t exhibit enough logic to turn the hell around when an out-of-nowhere rotary phone rings at the entry to this skull and bone maze. Also, Scarlett is a world class academic expert on the ancient pseudoscience of alchemy, which is commendable, except that she also seems to believe in it. Given that Geoffrey Chaucer was poking fun of alchemy’s impracticality in the Fourteenth Century, it is a flaw of the film to attempt to use alchemy as the foundation for its plot.
The script also stumbles in its conclusion, placing at the most inopportune moment an awkward, disruptive punctuation to a wholly irrelevant romantic subplot. These late missteps catch the film in its closing act as it falls face first over the finish line, laughably borrowing its resolution from Space Jam. Want to get out of hell? That’s fine, because Micheal’s Secret Stuff was in you all along.
Overall: There’s a scene in 1997’s Event Horizon in which the crew unscrambles footage that shows flashing glimpses of hell. The scene lasts for less than a minute, but I count it as one of the scariest moments in movie history . I always wondered what would happen if an entire movie tried to build itself from the same overwhelmingly frightening stimuli. Now I know. As Above, So Below answers that question. I don’t want to watch this movie again, but more because of its horror success than its film flaws. In that sense, As Above, So Below is triumphant in ways that a lot of horror doesn’t have the courage to be.