In recent years, genre purists have spewed venom at two particularly visible trends in horror filmmaking; one a sub-category in its own right, the other more of a device employed by directors in pursuit of the almighty scream. The first trend is, of course, the cheap n’ easy “found footage” genre, which over the past decade and a half evolved from experimental outlier to blockbusting ubiquity. The second trend is the all-to-familiar Jump Scare, the much maligned method of milking reactions via a carefully timed combination of “Boo!” visuals and ear-shatteringly loud sound effects. Considering how very low both of these modern staples are considered by the critical elite, it’s no surprise that As Above, So Below was saddled with a meager twenty-seven percent on Rotten Tomatoes when it hit theaters this past August. Indeed, Below violently jams together the lo-fi chill of a found-footage yarn with the hard-hitting jump scares of a more traditional fright-fest. Though the nay-sayers would be hard-pressed to admit it, this combination produces a film so damnably bent on scaring its audience that it mostly succeeds due to sheer blunt force trauma.
Conceived by the deeply morbid Dowdle Brothers (The Poughkeepsie Tapes, Quarantine), Below concerns beautiful young archeologist Scarlett Marlowe (Perdita Weeks), who spends her time digging up ancient graves in the hopes of completing her late father’s research on the famed Philopher’s Stone, an alchemical artifact supposedly capable of granting eternal life. After finding a crucial key in an Iraqi cave, Scarlett follows a trail of cryptic clues to Paris, where she enlists her former lover George (Ben Feldman) to accompany her into the city’s catacombs—a winding network of sewage tunnels which double as the worlds largest mass grave. Accompanied by a group of eccentric Parisian guides, Scarlett and company delve into the dank tunnels with GoPro helmet-cameras in tow to capture any potential discoveries. Before long, however, they realize that among the six-million souls laid to rest in the Catacombs there exists a cadre of vicious demon creatures hell bent on preventing them from finding the sacred Stone.
What follows is a non-stop thrill-ride as intense as any horror film since 2006’s superb The Descent. The Dowdles do an excellent job here of using the found footage conceit as a means of putting us in the shoes of their hapless protagonists, trapped and isolated in a dark subterranean maze with nowhere to go but down. In addition, the creature design is top notch, creating calcified monsters which fall somewhere in between Karloff’s Mummy and the zombies from I Am Legend— but far scarier than either one. As the demons play on the characters fears, trapping them in nightmarish sequences which loop their darkest moments (a fatal car wreck, a brother’s drowning), the underground scenery flattens out to become a Hieronymous-Bosch-esque staging of debauchery. For a film most critics would consider “low”, Below has a rich and pluralized sense of aesthetics.
Overall, if you’re a horror fan looking for a film that will satisfy the popcorn munching scream-fiend in you while not totally leaving a dirty taste in the mouth, then a DVD or Blu-Ray of As Above, So Below should be at the top of your list. As it stands, the film is a glowing reminder that major studios can still make scary films, even if they have to employ some new tricks to do so. Special features include a short making-of featurette and trailers.