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September 14, 2014

As Above, So Below

by Franz Patrick


As Above, So Below (2014)
★★★ / ★★★★

Having found the Rose Key which is crucial in finding the philosopher’s stone, believed among alchemists for having the power to turn base metals into gold or silver as well as granting healing properties and immortality, Scarlett (Perdita Weeks) goes to Paris to visit George (Ben Feldman), a former lover, because she needs help translating Aramaic. Their discoveries suggest that the stone is somewhere in the underground catacombs. But the deeper they get inside, it appears as though the place is exhibiting a life of its own.

The first act of director John Erick Dowdle’s “As Above, So Below” suggests that it is not going to be a very good movie. As a part of the hand-held camera point of view sub-genre, the images on screen are almost incomprehensible. Already it has made a crucial mistake: as if the camera is being held by someone who is having a seizure that looking at the screen for thirty seconds straight is near headache-inducing. But once the story turns its attention to Paris, the material starts to get very interesting.

Aside from the scene in Iran, the first half is inspired—suspenseful because we are curious as to how the clues connect to one another and how, together, they will lead to the stone of interest. I enjoyed following a character who is driven by her curiosity and it seems like she is willing to do whatever it takes to solve the mystery. This gets her, including the party she managed to convince to go underground, into trouble later on. The main character is a heartfelt and subtle nod to Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez’ “The Blair Witch Project.”

Many of the scenes that take place underground are creepy and full of wonder. I will remember the picture for its individual images like the characters having to crawl though hundreds of human bones because the space is so tight, there is no room to stand. A character gets stuck and starts to panic. The camera remains still, as if reveling in his fear. Hyperventilating, he commands the others to keep moving forward and yet we know, deep down, he does not want to be left behind. Bone dusts start to collect on his clothes, his face, the air. Then he hears the squeaking rats underneath the bones.

What we see are not the only things that are scary. Despite being tens of feet underneath the surface of the earth, a telephone rings from a distance. Scarlett, with her curiosity, manages to get herself to pick it up and say, “Hello?” We wonder what we would have done if we were in her shoes. I would have kept right on walking, convinced that nothing good or earthly could possibly come from the other line.

The picture falls apart during the final ten minutes in that it shares similar weaknesses as the first scene from a technical point of view. Overtaken by panic, Scarlett must run, dive, and climb. I found it robotic that in every room there is a scary figure. There are loud sounds but there is no convincing suspense or horror. Clearly, the film’s strength is in its slow unfolding of the mystery’s secrets. Thus, its attempt to “modernize” the material by providing the audience with a barrage of encounters within a very limited time comes across as desperate.

Written by Drew Dowdle and John Erick Dowdle, “As Above, So Below” is a cut above a majority of movies that adopt a found footage style because it is able to take inspiration from good horror films, like Neil Marshall’s “The Descent,” and puts its own spin on the final product. Although it does not offer anything groundbreaking, I caught myself furrowing my brow, anticipating what could be there waiting right around the corner.

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