Review: ‘As Above/So Below’ is Scary When It’s Not Supernatural

By August 29, 2014
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What’s scarier than being trapped underground? For the claustrophobic among you, probably not much, but being trapped in catacombs, surrounded by the bones of millions of dead people, and entering the actual gates of hell just might top it. So it goes in As Above/So Below, a found footage horror film that plays like The Descent meets Event Horizon, with a bit of National Treasure mixed in and viewed through a Cloverfield lens. I actually like all of those films far more than this one; As Above/So Below is a passable thriller with a few good jump scares and a handful of creepy moments.

A young archaeologist named Scarlett Marlowe (Perdita Weeks), a Lara Croft-type who has multiple doctorates and a black belt in Krav Maga, is searching for the mythical Philosopher’s Stone, an item that can turn water into gold and grant eternal life. This quest was originally her father’s, but he killed himself after the search drove him to insanity, and Scarlett knows she must find the Stone to restore his reputation. Benji (The Purge’s Edwin Hodge) is a cameraman filming a documentary about her search, and the two head to Paris to recruit Scarlett’s ex-lover George (“Mad Men” star Ben Feldman), who reluctantly agrees to translate some ancient writings for her. The group races around the City of Lights, finding clues that point them to a chamber buried deep under the city in the catacombs, and with an additional trio of treasure hunting guides in tow, they all head underground, unknowingly moving toward an evil force that will make them confront their deepest fears.

The film was co-written by the Dowdle Brothers, who you may know from their work on other found footage projects like Quarantine and The Poughkeepsie Tapes, and was directed by John Erick Dowdle. It’s been a while since a found footage film came along that actually justified it being shot in that way, and because of the documentary conceit, I bought this one’s premise from the start. I’m admittedly not a huge horror buff, but it seems like recently there’s been a pervasive feeling of everyone rolling their eyes every time a new found footage movie comes out because it seems as if a studio is trying to capitalize on an old trend instead of telling a story in the best possible way. I never thought that with this movie, so it at least has that going for it.

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As Above/So Below is the sort of straightforward genre piece that plays out exactly how you think it will without much room for deep examinations of psychology or challenging our expectations for what films like this can be. That’s fine – not every movie has to upend its genre or bring us something that will make us think for days on end. But because the story beats were all mashups of things we’ve seen so many times before, this ended up not being a very memorable experience for me.

The Dowdles crafted a creepy atmosphere where you never know what’s going to be around the next corner, and for the first half of the film, it works extremely well. At one point our heroes see a small cult chanting ominously in an open cavern as they pass through the catacombs, and one of the cult members quickly whips her head over to stare directly into the camera lens. It’s stuff like that that creeped me out, aspects that seemed plausible to encounter if I were to actually go down there myself. But by the time the characters physically cross the gates of hell, the supernatural elements and seeming randomness of the jump scares began to take me out of the movie.

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The characters begin to see things from their pasts and as they confront their inner demons, it becomes clear that they’re also going to have to confront some outer ones if they’re going to make it out alive. It’s the sort of cheesy idea that allows for some eerie visuals – a drowned brother, a burning car, a broken piano – but we’re never given enough information about any of the characters to really feel their pain, or to understand all of their motivations for continuing on this trek when things immediately start to get hairy.

As Above/So Below has a couple of worthwhile scares as the characters wander through tight spaces, but not much else to dig into. If anything, maybe the title can double as a humorous response next time a bro at a bar asks a woman if the carpet matches the drapes.

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Ben is a writer living in Los Angeles, California. His work has been featured at ScreenRant.com, FirstShowing.net, MySpace.com, GeekTyrant.com, and many more sites across the web. Some of his favorite movies include The Rocketeer, Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, Tombstone, Lucky Number Slevin, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, Collateral, Double Indemnity, Back to the Future and The Prestige. Follow him on Twitter: @BenPears.