I went in fully expecting to hate As Above, So Below, yet another entry in found-footage cinema, a genre that has worn out its welcome for the most part. With the exception of Ti West’s The Sacrament, which disguises itself as a VICE documentary, this horror subgenre doesn’t affect us the way it used to. In the years since The Blair Witch Project, has a found-footage film frightened us as much as that moment when Heather discovers Mike facing the wall in the basement? No. Does As Above/So Below breathe new life into a stilted breed of horror? The answer lies in France’s Catacombs and just how comfortable you are in close quarters.
If you are claustrophobic, it’s difficult to imagine not reacting in horror to certain situations the characters of As Above find themselves in: tight passages, bones of the dead around every corner, and the threat of permanent darkness at every turn. The movie takes us to and through what may be Hell itself, and while it doesn’t break any new ground, it briefly extends life in the diminishing-returns era of found-footage features. Plus, it’s got Ben Feldman (Ginsberg) from Mad Men! How bad could it possibly be?
A British student’s discovery of a buried, Aramaic message brings the student in question (Perdita Weeks) to Paris, where she believes the Philosopher’s Stone is buried deep beneath the city streets, hidden away within its Catacombs. Fortunately, an old colleague happens to be in the city (Ginsberg, er, Feldman), and he also happens to speak Aramaic. Along with a trusty cameraman and a group of French explorers familiar with the famous tomb, the sextet begin their journey via an unpopular secret entrance, and that’s when all hell begins to break loose.
Here is where the familiar beats of lost-in-the-woods scares make their way into the dark caves of As Above. Several times, no matter what direction they take, the group ends up right back where they started. There is a sign that literally says “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here,” which is acknowledged to be a reference to Hell, yet the gang all but shrugs it off and continues on with their troubled tour. Ghosts (demons?) suddenly appear in the distance, but only for a moment. The movie is basically one long walk through a haunted house, which will be fun for some viewers and tiresome to others.
Guilt haunts the explorers, taking the forms of telephone calls, childhood pianos, and cars set ablaze. We discover why this is as the film goes on, but it really isn’t that important. We also learn about the movie’s title (it has more to do with magic than devilry), but all of these reveals get drowned out by the time Act III comes along anyway, so who cares? While the film’s finale has some genuine scares, it’s the journey that is most effective. Perhaps co-writer/director John Erick Dowdle (Devil, ugh) realized this when deciding to not only use the Catacombs as a setting, but to film most of the movie on (or should I say in) location.
What ultimately undoes As Above is the decision to use found-footage as a plot device. If certain cameras being used to film the action are left behind in the depths of Hell, how did the footage make its way back to our plain of existence for our viewing pleasure? Were these tapes sent via FedEx or UPS? If so, I certainly hope the demon that sent them retained a receipt. It’s tough getting out of Hell, what with all the statues coming to life and those pesky floors with gnashing teeth. If that footage had been lost, we could forget about it ever being found.
Facetiousness aside (you’re welcome), As Above, So Below is a film that gets in its own way as much as dead ends block the paths of its characters. It’s better than it has any right to be, thanks to its on-location shoot and claustrophobic atmosphere, but ultimately serves as another example of how close we are to the end of found-footage features, if we’re not there already. But, hey, at least it’s got Ginsberg!