So many movies in the last few years have focused on using visceral horror and supremely disgusting special effects to be scary that it’s refreshing to find one that not only avoids those for the most part but also avoids the “creepy ghost moving suddenly” style of jump scare borrowed from Asian horror cinema. “As Above, So Below” aims to be more of a “Blair Witch Project” style scary movie: it avoids expensive gross makeup in favor of creeping paranoia and dread with a slowly increasing sense of doom. It’s not a terribly good film, but it goes through the familiar paces with determination.
All of the shots are from cameras held by the characters: Benji (Edwin Hodge), the documentary cameraman; Scarlett (Perdita Weeks), the subject of his documentary; and other secondary characters whose headlamps are equipped with small portable cameras to add more angles. The whole first-person horror movie thing doesn’t always work, but it adds to the sense of claustrophobia that pervades the film as soon as the small group heads underground.
The story is pretty standard horror movie fare: ambitious archaeologist leads small group into an unusual and dangerous location in pursuit of possibly non-existant antiquities. In this case, Scarlett believes she’s finally finished her father’s work and found the true location of the Philosopher’s Stone (a substance alchemists believed could transmute lead into gold, give eternal life, etc.). The location is deep in the catacombs under Paris, which are famous for holding millions of peoples’ bones – excavated when cemetery overcrowding became untenable. Scarlett finds an urban explorer, Papillon (François Civil), and hires him and his small group of friends to help Benji and her find the Stone. Add in nervous language expert George (Ben Feldman) and you’ve got a pretty standard collection of protagonists.
Of course, things don’t go as planned. First there are ordinary, mundane issues like the police, then a party member getting stuck in a small tunnel and panicking (this is emphatically not a movie for the claustrophobic unless you like having that phobia triggered). Next come the mystical problems: straight corridors that lead in circles, strange sounds and items showing up without making sense, and increasingly surreal creatures. By them time our heroes reach a tunnel whose entry bears the same warning sign as the gates of Hell are reputed to display, it’s not that much of a stretch to believe that they just might be headed downward into the diabolical.
The film has a definite low-budget feel to it, which both helps and hinders it. It’s low on special-effects, so the one effects-heavy moment delivers a real punch, but it also relies so heavily on cameras cutting out during action sequences that that it’s often hard to tell what’s happening, let alone get a good look at the creature effects.
In a lot of ways, “As Above, So Below” is a standard horror movie. It’s got some Hermeticism and Alchemy mixed in for flavor, but not enough to make it worth watching for devout practitioners of those fields. What it is good for is acting as an appetizer to the course of scary movies coming out this fall. If you’d like to flex your horror-watching muscles with a new but still familiar story, it will hit the spot. If you’re looking for something groundbreaking or unusual, stay home and whet your scary movie appetite with an old favorite.