“The only way out is down.”
A beautiful young scholar of the history of alchemy literally goes through Hell (or does she?) via the Paris catacombs in order to complete her late father’s quest to find the Philosopher’s Stone. If this sounds to you like an “Indiana Jones” type of story-line, this horror/mystery/thriller movie from last year will surprise you. However, if you are a hard-core horror fan, it might disappoint you. AS ABOVE, SO BELOW (2014) is based on a promising premise that the film executes with varied levels of success. Regarding expectations, it’s sometimes above, sometimes below.
Co-written by director John Erick Dowdle and producer Drew Dowdle, this film presents a daringly original, complex, and arcane story. Brought to life by the cinematography of Léo Hinstin and original music by Keefus Ciancia, AS ABOVE, SO BELOW stars Perdita Weeks and Ben Feldman. Supporting actors with significant roles include Edwin Hodge, François Civil, Marion Lambert, Ali Marhyar, and Cosme Castro. Produced by Legendary Pictures on a budget of $5-10 million (a “micro budget” film for Legendary, according to Variety), the film’s approximate worldwide gross to date since its August 29, 2014 release date is $40 million (according to IMDbPro).
Scarlett (Weeks), an over-educated, impetuous, young UCL professor who specializes in the history of alchemy, is driven to find the Philosopher’s Stone. This object was the goal of all alchemy, which sought after mastery of the process of transformation. The precursor of modern science, alchemy first sought to transmute base metals into gold, but ultimately aimed to discover the means to immortality. The Philosopher’s Stone is that means. Legend has it that it was created by fourteenth-century French alchemist Nicolas Flamel (an historical figure in real life), who carried the secret of the Stone’s whereabouts to his Parisian grave. Grave-robbers later found that his tomb was empty.
Scarlett’s father’s suicide ended his quest for the Stone, which is rumored to have driven him mad. Scarlett’s compulsion is to complete her father’s work, which she pursues with obsessive focus. After braving the dangers of modern-day Iran to locate the Rose Key (a kind of alchemical Rosetta Stone) in caverns slated for demolition by the government, she uses the secrets of the Key (conveniently captured on video by Scarlett) to unlock the hidden meaning of symbols on Flamel’s tombstone in Paris. For this task, she requires the assistance of fellow alchemical enthusiast George (Feldman), who is less than happy to see her. The last time they worked together, George ended up spending a week in a Turkish jail after being abandoned by Scarlett. Intrigued by Scarlett’s new information, he agrees to help her translate the symbols, but refuses to do more than that. Scarlett also brings a documentary filmmaker friend, Benji (Hodge), onboard to record her work.
Together, Scarlett and George deduce that Flamel is actually buried in a secret chamber several hundred feet below the site of his original grave. This distance is exactly halfway to Hell, according to alchemical lore. The only way to reach it is through the vast, centuries-old system of catacombs that runs beneath the city of Paris. On a guided tour of the catacombs, they realize that the only way to reach the chamber is by accessing the “off-limits” areas of the catacombs. A mysterious teenage stranger tells Scarlett that Papillon (Civil) can take them where they need to go. After locating Papillon in a Paris nightclub, Scarlett and George are able to convince him to guide them, but only after promising him half of any treasure that they might find in the secret chamber.
Along with fellow explorers Zed (Marhyar) and Souxie (Lambert), Papillon takes Scarlett, George and Benji into the off-limits areas of the catacombs. As the viewer might expect, the potential for horror increases the deeper into the Earth the group goes. There they encounter La Taupe (Castro), a former member of Papillon’s underground-dwelling circle of friends, who disappeared months before when he decided to explore a passageway that all the subterraneans in Paris consider to be evil.
La Taupe (who seems “different” than when last seen by Papillon, Souxie, and Zed) claims to know a way out of the catacombs, but adds that “the only way out is down.” Following his lead, the group proceeds in the “right” direction, but one that also confronts them with their deepest fears and darkest sins. As members of the team start to die, Scarlett and George try to keep their wits about them so they can use their knowledge of alchemy to solve the riddles that they find along the way. When the world turns upside down on them, will they be able to escape with their lives?
Below Expectations: Problems with AS ABOVE, SO BELOW
- Use of POV: It’s “shaky cam” all the way. Apart from the fad status of “found footage” films, I don’t understand why this cinematographic choice is currently so widely used by horror filmmakers. It doesn’t seem necessary to provide an excuse for why a horror story found its way onto celluloid or digital video. Once the POV choice is made, however, the source of every shot must be explained to viewers, lest the slender thread of believability connecting them to the screen be broken. So each character who goes into the catacombs must wear a pin cam affixed to his or her headlamp. Given the action in this film, Benji’s collection of camera equipment must be the sturdiest ever made — the old Timex slogan “takes a lickin’ and keeps on tickin'” should be licensed by whatever manufacturer provided the gear. What I’m getting at is that the found footage technique actually detracts from the veracity of the story by repeatedly drawing attention to the artifice involved in making such a film.
- Generic Horror Tropes and Devices: As other reviewers have noted, the film starts out with an original premise and explores it in a setting previously off-limits to filmmakers, but then degenerates into standard horror cliches before offering a surprise ending. The cliches diminish the movie’s scare factor (which is, of course, artificially inflated by its trailers). The disorientation caused by the story’s ending would have been more powerful if tropes and devices not directly related to the story had not been used.
Above Expectations: Strengths of AS ABOVE, SO BELOW
- Use of the Mythology of Alchemy: It is clear that the Dowdle brothers did their research before they wrote the screenplay for this film. From historical fact they created a compellingly original premise, which they then proceeded to set up with skill. If only it hadn’t fallen apart in the third act . . . .
- Character Names: I could be reading too much into the film here, but some of the characters have names that seem to allude to other films. Is Scarlett a reference to another impetuous, strong-willed female character of the same name, played by Vivien Leigh in “Gone with the Wind” (1939)? Perhaps the name is simply a reference to the fact she is a “ginger.” Is Papillon a nod to Steve McQueen’s escape-artist character in the eponymous “Papillon” (1973)? Finally, La Taupe translates as “The Mole” — is this an allusion to Alejandro Jodorowsky’s “El Topo” (1970), another film about a bloody spiritual journey?
- Psychological vs. Supernatural Horror: The tension between internal and external — “above” and “below” — as the source of what creates the reaction of horror works well in this film. It is convincing for most of the film because the dichotomy is central to the film (as declared by its title).
- Special Effects: Balancing out the horror cliches are several well-done special effects and camera tricks. The most remarkable, in my opinion, are the death of Papillon and the inversion effect at the end of the film.