Whatever else As Above, So Below has to recommend it, and it has several things that eminently do so, it has breathed a little fresh air into the found-footage genre of horror film. This is a tidy little flick, heavy on mood, light on gore, and bursting with a refreshing originality of story line. Fans of alchemy will find much to reward them here,including the true meaning of vitriol. Fans of the Lovecraftian school of weirdness will also find much to enjoy. Plus, there’s a dash of Dante, and a hint of Templars that make the mix of hubris and guilt that much more piquant.
The title is an aphorism from The Emerald Tablet of Hermes Trismegistus, the basis of the alchemical art, and it comes to dismal (in the Edward Gorey sense of the word) delight in the Parisian catacombs. This is the final resting place of six million deceased Parisians, and also the final resting place of The Philosopher’s Stone. At least that’s what Scarlett (Perdita Weeks) thinks. A multi-degreed crack linguist in languages living and dead, she has devoted her life to continuing her father’s work in discovering this alchemical treasure said to bestow wealth and immortality on those who possess it.
Naturally, there are complications.
The exact location isn’t on the approved catacomb tour, forcing Scarlett her frenemy Georgie (Mad Men‘s Ben Feldman), the cameraman documenting the action, and a band of devil-may-care urban spelunkers to forge their own path through the parts that are off-limits. As they soon discover, there is a good reason for them to be so designated. Even Papillon (Francois Civil), the lead spelunker believes that parts of the catacombs are just plain evil and should be avoided at all costs. But, of course, those are the areas that they find themselves in, areas there time and space are purely subjective, and sound is a capricious thing, especially when telephones ring when the phone lines are non-existent, babies who aren’t there cry, and pianos pop up where they shouldn’t.
I have a few quibbles with the plot. Georgie, who spent time in a Turkish jail thanks to Scarlett, spends the first half-hour swearing that there is no way he is going underground, and then does. But this is balanced out by some lovely touches, such as the young man with the helpful advice who appears on cue and then disappears with no one noticing; the way Scarlett takes combustible liberties with a priceless museum piece and finds not only a salient clue, but also makes for a poetically eerie visual. Those visuals progress as the crew descends, evoking the claustrophobia of crawling over a pile of bones in a narrow tunnel, building suspense and tension, which then explodes with the odd camera angles of people caught off-guard while their nerves are on edge. The latter state comes in small but potent bursts, giving equally potent half-glimpses of what lurks in the catacombs, said half-glimpses being far more terrifying than a lingering shot could be, or, for that matter, a full explanation of what is being shown. We are tasked with using our imaginations, and far from being a tedious exercise in filling in plot holes, it makes for an engrossing experience where we can never be quite sure what will happen next.
The story has little that could be called derivative in its through-plot, though the elements of guilt each member of the crew experiences has a familiar feel. Still, the performances are committed and nicely measured for a film intended to make the audience jump and scream. Particularly Edwin Hodge as Benji the cameraman, who does hyperventilating hysteria in that tunnel full of bones with a palpable sense of sanity slipping away, yet never ventures into hammy territory. There is also something irresistibly endearing about a female lead played with brashness, such that she has little fear and even fewer compunctions about such things as breaking into a cathedral if it will solve her immediate problem. Plus she can keep her head even when she can’t keep her cool.
As Above, So Below gifts us with a lively history lesson on the catacombs of Paris, the history and practice of alchemy, and some nifty insights into ancient engineering practices even as it makes our pulses race. It’s a fun flick that is clever, surprising, and satisfyingly well-executed.
Andrea Chase (@AndreaKMR)
AS ABOVE, SO BELOW is on DVD and Blu-ray now.