Review: 'As Above, So Below' Refreshes Found Footage with Adventure
by Ethan Anderton
August 29, 2014
The use of found footage has become a bit of an eye-rolling endeavor in horror, almost nearly as much as the penchant that iconic horror slashers like Michael Myers and Jason Vorhees have for defying death. It has become hard for horror films to use the narrative style effectively without just being a gimmick, and the explanation for this approach is usually weak, with characters inexplicably never putting down a video camera in moments of terror or being shown in what couldn't possibly be "found" footage. But with As Above, So Below, an engrossing adventure plot mixed with familiar horror elements from Legendary Pictures, those problems are not only explained, but make for some real suspense and terror. More below!
Directer John Erick Dowdle, co-writing with brother Drew Dowdle, reunite after previous horror endeavors Devil and Quarantine with what might be their best horror venture yet, but that doesn't mean it's perfect. As with all found footage horror films, we focus on a group of people entering and ominously dangerous location who stumble about life-threatening terror. But this one is made more original with an adventure plot that you would normally find in Indiana Jones or Tomb Raider, and it also allows for one of the stronger female leads we've seen in this genre.
Archaeologist Scarlett Marlowe (Perdita Weeks) is in hot pursuit of alchemist Nicolas Flamel’s legendary Philosopher’s Stone, the fabled artifact that has been said to turn metal into gold and grant eternal life to whoever possesses it. Her motivation comes from a desire to prove that her father, who went mad and killed himself in the same pursuit, isn't crazy, and she hopes to prove to everyone that the stone is real. With her cameraman Benji (Edwin Hodge), reluctant colleague George (Ben Feldman) and a group of hipster explorers (led by François Civil), they head into the underground catacombs of Paris where they believe the stone can be found, amongst a grave that holds over 6 millions skeletons.
The plot and location is a big part of what makes As Above, So Below so much more engaging that most other found footage entries. The Dowdle Brothers actually used head-mounted cameras (explained away by being attached to small headlamps for the characters to see in the dark) attached to their cast members while shooting on-location in many real of the real catacombs (usually closed off to the public), and it gives off a suffocatingly, claustrophobic vibe, adding even more suspense to the rest of the regular horror proceedings. It's impossible to tell what was shot on a sound stage and what was shot in the real catacombs (funnily enough, a piano and a car were actually brought into the real catacombs for a couple scenes).
The only downside to the tight quarters is that all the shaky camera movements from this shooting method make it a little difficult to discern what's going on, especially in moments of panic and suspense. Rarely does the camera sit still for a thoroughly uncomfortable amount of time as Benji, the only guy with a handheld camera, gets stuck crawling through a small cavern, human bones strewn about. And while that can be frustrating and confusing at times, in a way, it works with this setting, allowing the viewer's imagination to run rampant, effectively scaring themselves along with what's on-screen.
Helping the audience's fear level is also some very effective sound work. Whether it's the distant chanting of some cult weirdos practicing some kind of seance in another chamber of the catacombs, the crackling of rocks and creaking of the earth, or strange sounds that seem to be emanating from the gates of Hell, sound is used masterfully in making the viewer feel just as trapped and surrounded as our characters
Another element worth praise is our leading lady, made strong and assertive by Perdita Weeks. She has flares of both Indiana Jones and Lara Croft, though she's a bit more misguided and foolhardy in her efforts, but when it comes time for her to step up and face her fears, she's hardly the damsel in distress, taking matters into her own hands, desperate to accomplish her task and hopefully not die trying. It's surprising just how much of this wasn't shown off in the trailers, opting for the usual scare tactics, most of which aren't even seen until the third act of the film.
In fact, where As Above, So Below really succeeds is in mixing familiar horror tropes in with an engaging, albeit basic, storyline. That combined with the unique setting of the Paris catacombs more than makes up for the more familiar aspects of the found footage narrative structure that we've seen as far back as The Blair Witch Project. To be fair, the film is never overtly scary, but there's plenty of suspense and unique elements to make it worth checking out. While it doesn't offer anything new as far as found footage goes, a distinctive story and a robust female lead make it stand out more than you might expect.
Ethan's Rating: 7 out of 10
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