As Above, So Below has a beautifully gothic poster. Seriously, it’s a gorgeous and macabre design. Click here to see it. Bathed in an ominous crimson red, the image has an upside down Eiffel Tower rooted in a base of human skulls. Hundreds of them. The tagline warns us, “The Only Way Out Is Down.” As one-sheets go, this one’s pretty remarkable. Really, terrific job on this one, marketing team.
OK, great! Can we stop there? We should stop there. You want me to discuss the movie, as well? That’s not going to end well. You’re sure? Fine.
This is a terrible film. Just an ugly, disappointing exercise that actually had potential, if it somehow could have landed in the hands of a director who understood the function of a camera. John Erick Dowdle directs and co-writes on As Above, So Below -- as he did on likeminded first-person, found-footage horror flicks like The Poughkeepsie Tapes and Quarantine. What I can’t figure out is why Dowdle doesn’t want us to see the film he has gone through the trouble to “record.” Let me explain.
As Above, So Below could have been a cross-breed between Tomb Raider, Raiders of the Lost Ark (that’s a reach, but stay with me), and Cloverfield. The intriguing premise begs for better execution. We’re introduced to Scarlett (Perdita Weeks), a beautiful and intelligent professor/archaeologist who believes she has unlocked the final piece of a puzzle that will unearth the long-missing Philosopher’s Stone. (Not that one, UK Harry Potter fans.) She recruits a team on a claustrophobic quest into the catacombs beneath Paris, though with each wrong turn, the expedition drops farther and farther beneath the surface, and the gates of Hell inch closer.
So what happened? John Erick Dowdle happened. The director chooses to photograph As Above, So Below in a fashion that makes it impossible to enjoy. “Found-footage” isn’t part of the narrative, but Dowdle films using the worst visual tools in this distracting and insufferable genre. Characters film using cameras attached to their helmets, meaning visuals are constantly jiggling and swerving. The action predominantly takes place in dark, cramped tunnels – another obstruction to actually seeing what is happening on screen. There’s a scene where one character, Benji (Edwin Hodge), needs to crawl across a river of human bones to access an incredibly tiny cave entrance. Naturally, he gets stuck, and begins to panic. Something is biting him, and he fears he won’t escape. It should be a gripping sequence. But Dowdle (as he does with most of the film) opts to shoot the scene in such an awkward, tight and irregular angle that it drains any tension that should be built into the equation.
This issue plagues most of As Above, So Below, which might have been exciting, terrifying, or pulse-racing if I could appreciate what was happening. I don’t know if the performances are any good because I could barely see the actors. I inched toward the edge of my seat and tried so very hard to pay attention when As Above, So Below flirted with notions of Satanism and a possible encounter with Lucifer, himself. Alas, the whole thing was far too dizzy, jarring and out-of-focus to ever matter. There is one admittedly cool bit in the film. The group hears the ringing of an antique telephone, despite the fact that they are hundreds of feet below Paris. Scarlett answers, and the decrepit voice on the other end calls her name. That was scary. The rest of As Above, So Below is a 93-minute wrong number.