As Above, So Below (USA, 2014)
There may be a word in the English language that serves as an antonym of “synergy”, but I have yet to find it. This is a shame, as a single word meaning “less than the sum of its parts” would prove useful, especially in this review. This is not to say that As Above, So Below is a poor film, but given the cocktail of ingredients, it could have been so much more. This is a film that combines location shoots in the Paris catacombs, surprisingly well-researched elements of Western esotericism, urban exploration, Dante’s Divine Comedy and a Dan-Brown style romp without the punchable characters and brain-damaged exposition. Handled deftly, this could have been my perfect horror film; as things stand, I found it mildly disappointing, if entertaining enough.
Scarlett (Perdita Weeks) is obsessed with finding the Philosopher’s Stone. Instead of turning to alchemy itself, she has followed in her late father’s footsteps as an archaeologist. When we first meet her, she is running around a cave complex in Iran, trying to find a key to decoding certain alchemical texts while ignoring warnings about the imminent demolition of the caves. The risks Scarlett is willing to take with her own life and those of her companions tell us most of what we need to know about her for the rest of the film. This is a woman who draws others into the wake of her obsession only to discover that most of them drown.
Armed with this new ancient knowledge, Scarlett heads to Paris where she recruits cameraman Benji to document her investigations and rogue bell repairman George to help with translations. When their research leads them to believe that the true resting place of legendary alchemist Nicolas Flamel, also the probable location of his Philosopher’s Stone, lies deep below the surface of Paris, they convince a group of French urban explorers to be their guides through the catacombs. As they head deeper, they encounter manifestations of their own guilt and fears, along with portents lifted straight out of Dante’s Inferno.
Yes, I mentioned a cameraman. This is another bloody found-footage film. As usual, this means lots of shots of people running around and screaming while the camera jerks enough to stop you getting a good look at what’s going on. Happily the use of head-mounted cameras means that the point-of-view shots are a bit more engaging than the standard camcorder footage, and the claustrophobic locations lend more of a sense of immersion than in many similar films. Just don’t spend too long wondering how they managed to incorporate the footage shot by characters who didn’t make it out.
As good as the cast are, the Paris catacombs are the real star of this film. Apparently this is the first feature to have been shot on location there, and the narrow tunnels, sudden drops, localised flooding, shifting architecture and leering skulls give the film an atmosphere that no amount of set dressing or special effects could replicate. The ever-present threat of being trapped in this dark underworld will add an extra dimension of fear for anyone with even the mildest claustrophobia; that said, it still didn’t make my palms sweat in quite the same way as The Descent managed.
One criticism I’ve seen in online discussions is that a fair number of people find As Above, So Below hard to follow. This is a film heavy with symbolism and esoteric references, and I can see that being potentially alienating. When I was younger I had a keen interest in the occult, and this helped me keep up with the sometimes unforgiving dialogue. I’m sure I would have enjoyed the film a lot less if I hadn’t been nodding through parts of it in recognition. This isn’t to say that there’s nothing in this film for people whose knowledge of alchemy is more appropriate for the modern world, but I wonder if it would reduce the experience to simply watching a bunch of people running around in tunnels and screaming as weird shit happens.
As Above, So Below is a film that would probably benefit from a second viewing. There are many subtle pieces of foreshadowing and throwaway elements that are lost in the barrage of fast dialogue and chases through the underworld, and I wonder how much more satisfied I’d feel if I’d picked up on them all. The fact that the film struggles to convey all these hints first time around could be seen as a problem, and as much fun as it is, I feel no pressing urge to watch it again and try to fill in the gaps.
If I come across as negative, please don’t let this put you off. As Above, So Below is definitely above average, and its strong premise and driving pace see it through some of the weaker scenes largely unscathed. My frustration comes not from seeing it as a failure, but as a qualified success that had the potential to be so much more. And that’s still better than most horror films.