“As Above, So Below” is a smart horror film packaged to be consumed by the average viewer. Set in the claustrophobic nightmare that is the Paris Catacombs, one has to wonder why it took so long for horror filmmakers to capitalize on the built-in creepiness that comes from the bone-lined tunnels. Unsure where the real Catacombs end and the studio sets begin, the close quarters and claustrophobia take hold and cause for some extremely stressful situations.

With dismal entries already this year and with a trailer that set it on track to be another horror disappointment, “As Above, So Below” actually muscles through its found-footage shakiness and delivers a unique and horrific adventure, unlike anything you have experienced before. One part “Tomb Raider”, two parts “The Descent”, the plot follows a group of treasure hunters into the unknown as they hunt for the Philosopher’s Stone.

British actress Perdita Weeks steps into her first major leading role, as the head of the expedition, Scarlett. Following in her deceased father’s footsteps, hunting down a stone created by Nicholas Flamel, a well-known alchemist from the 1400s who, legend tells, found the secret to immortality through the said stone. We meet Scarlett in Iran, where the punishment for trespassing is death. Instead of heeding this warning, she heads into a series of tunnels that are minutes away from being destroyed. Just before the explosion, she finds the Rose Key, allowing her to understand the ancient inscriptions on Flamel’s gravestone. Later, we meet her longtime partner, George (Ben Feldman of “Mad Men”) and Papillon (François Civil of “Frank”) along with his crew, who are to show Scarlett and her cameraman, Benji, through the back passages of the Catacombs.

On the surface, the characters appear to be quite thin and not entirely fleshed out, but as the story progresses and the viewer pieces together different bits of information sprinkled throughout, their ambiguous nature, along with their sordid pasts, actually becomes quite clear in a clever storytelling device. Also, the main characters are extremely intelligent, providing a nice change to the normal run amuck spiral that most horror adventure devolves into. Scarlett is continuously working out what the next step will be and is certain they are headed in the right direction, while George is constantly keeping track of how far down into the earth they have traveled. This sense of control in an otherwise uncontrollable environment is crucial in allowing the audience some level ground to stand on. Not just that, but these intelligent characters greatly set this film apart from any of its found-footage brethren.

Director and writer John Erick and Drew Dowdle are best known for another shaky camera horror film, “Quarantine”, the American remake of the Spanish film “Rec”. As the brothers descend the characters and the audience deeper into the unforgiving tombs, they are constantly using ancient inscriptions and cave drawings to not only provide context to what is happening but to also provide the much-needed justification that there is indeed something to gain from this deadly scavenger hunt. The Dowdle Brothers handle themselves with an overlooked precision that will be lost on the general audiences because of the commercial nature of the film. But with a closer look and admiration for the art of horror, it is clear that these men know what they are doing.

The idea of found footage films continues to baffle me. Countless unnecessary questions arise from the use of this medium. Why would the characters continue to film under such duress? Why would they stand so close to one another during intimate moments that they are not even involved with? And what percentage of the time does the camera show what the audience wants to see and what percentage is indiscernible static and emptiness as the camera passes recklessly from moment to moment? Putting aside my strong resentment for the recent bastardizing of the genre and even though the shaky camera gets nauseating at times there is enough restraint and some stellar shot choices that eventually make up for it. One of my favorite shot selections comes at the end of the film, where the laws of gravity are tossed to the wayside and some impressive maneuvers bring the narrative full circle.

Just as alchemy attempts to combine the physical world with the supernatural, determining the depths of hell with mathematics, “As Above, So Below” can make the existence of hell seem plausible, literally grounding it in some strange reality that makes one feel like it could be just beneath our feet. So give yourself over to the white-knuckle, stomach-wrenching ride that is the hell of the Paris Catacombs in what could be the best horror film of the year.

August 29, 2014

John Erick Dowdle

Drew Dowdle
John Erick Dowdle

Legendary Pictures
Universal Pictures

$5 million

(for bloody violence/terror, and language throughout)


93 minutes

Léo Hinstin

Keefus Ciancia

Elliot Greenberg

Perdita Weeks
Ben Feldman
Edwin Hodge
François Civil
Marion Lambert
Ali Marhyar

Thomas Tull
Jon Jashni
Drew Dowdle
Patrick Aiello

$5 million

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