As Above So Below

Rating:

Horror Done Right

Main Cast: Perdita Weeks and Ben Feldman

Director: John Erick Dowdle

In a world that has grown tired of the whole found footage phenomena, I’m still a huge fan, and one of the best found footage movies to come out of the last few years was 2014’s As Above, So Below, written and directed by John Erick Dowdle (The Poughkeepsie Tapes, Quarantine)–with writing help from his brother, Drew–and starring Perdita Weeks (“The Tudors”) and Ben Feldman (“Mad Men”).

In the movie, Scarlett (played by Weeks) is an alchemy scholar, trying to complete her dead father’s life’s work: finding the mysterious philosopher’s stone. The clues have led her to Paris where she enlists the help of ex-boyfriend George (Feldman), and together with Benji (Edwin Hodge, The Purge), who is documenting the entire process, they gather a team of locals who know the area, and descend into the catacombs beneath the city, where the research they’ve collected has said they’ll find the treasure.

Only the area of the catacombs they have to search isn’t on any map and has never been explored, even by the most renegade of urban explorers. The locals, Papillion, Souxie and Zed, agree to help them in exchange for half the treasure. Scarlett, whose only goal is the stone, agrees, and they set off.

Once under the city, the path takes an unexpected turn, and that’s when things get really freaky.

Encountering mysterious ringing telephones, an old out of tune piano from George’s childhood, a group of singing cultists, and The Mole, a former acquaintance of Papillion who vanished some time ago, the group descends deeper and deeper beneath Paris at urging of The Mole who insists, “The only way out is down.”

Eventually Scarlett finds her treasure, but before they can get back to the surface, a boobytrap is triggered and the group is forced to venture forward, even further underground. Finally they come to an entrance with an inscription above it, “Abandon all hope, ye who enter” and the group realizes this is the inscription above the fabled entrance to Hell in Dante’s famous poem. With no other choice, they must go forward.

As Above, So Below was an amazingly creepy movie when I saw it in theaters, but seeing it again this morning, on my laptop in a dark office with my headphones, it was so much worse. The sound design when they’re under the city, as they go deeper and deeper into the catacombs, deeper into Hell, is amazing.

The movie was filmed in the actual catacombs, so the location is terrifying and claustrophobic, but knowing in the story playing out before you that they’re entering Hell, it just gets worse. Also, I applaud the Dowdles for not making Hell some mythic place full of demons and fire and torment. I mean those things are present, but they’re used very sparingly for greater effect. Instead, the Hell Scarlett and company enter is just more oppressive darkness. The shadows under Paris become a character themselves, each twist and turn full of potential for more terror.

And I think that’s where this movie succeeds the most, in the potential terror. Yes, there are scares aplenty here, so it’s not all just the promise of terror without the payment, but the real effectiveness of the movie comes from just how scary it COULD be.

You’ve got the setting already, the close quarters, the fact they’re absolutely lost in the dark with only their headlamps to guide them, but guide them where? They’ve no idea and are only moving forward with the hope of something revealing itself. But the truth is, there is NO promise of release. They could very well never escape. And sooner or later those lights are gonna dim, then go out, and never come back on. And there’s no amount of treasure that can stop that.

It’s just a brilliant setup for absolute terror, and the Dowdles know how to play on those fears. At the same time, the cast really sells it.

There is the small detail of the cheesy climax, but then that final scene plays so well with the viewers’ perception, skewing everything in what was, for me, a breathtaking image, that I could forgive a little sappiness in exchange for having that image now permanently embedded in my brain. In fact, it was that image that led me to buying the DVD just so I could watch it and see that image again.

Luckily, that wasn’t the only thing to see here, though, and, for me, the movie succeeds as a whole. The found footage format works here, the cast plays very well off each other and makes the most out of their surroundings and, in the end, As Above, So Below is, for me, one of the best horror movies I’ve seen in years.

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