As Above, So Below is a 2014 found footage, supernatural adventure horror film that firmly capitalizes on the fact that the philosopher’s stone is a thing that exists in actual lore and not just in the Harry fucking Potter-verse. It’s a treasure hunt straight into some hellaciously dire circumstances via the Catacombs of Paris. If you haven’t seen the movie yet then, as always, we recommend you check out the trailer and consider watching the movie first before voyaging further down into our spoiler-riddled review. Have fun.
Reviewed by: Jake
Meet Scarlett Marlowe (Perdita Weeks), a scholar who speaks more languages than anyone you’ve ever met including some dead languages because fuck it. Just picture the really smart girl who was always raising her hand in class to explain things to the teacher rather than ask questions and you pretty much have her pinned. Except for the fact that she’s obsessed with alchemy and spends her time travelling the world looking for the philosopher’s stone. Her late father did it and after he killed himself she didn’t sit on the porch like a goon. She got her ass out there to find that fucking stone.
After finding the Rose Key (which helps interpret Nicholas Flamel’s headstone) she hires a cameraman named Benji (Edwin Hodge) to document her final steps towards uncovering the relic. The two go through the typical crew-assembly phase of the movie, first enlisting her ex-boyfriend George (Ben Feldman) and then getting some Parisian spelunkers led by Papillon (François Civil) on board with the promise of treasure. This part of the film was kind of like the radical assemblage sequence in D2: Mighty Ducks.
The crew gather their gear and head into the catacombs, but have to deal with some pesky police along the way. Turns out that throwing a couple smoke bombs at them will in fact make them go away entirely. They crawl through some bone piles and encounter some occultists singing occultist incantations and eventually reach a door that Pap and the French trio are reluctant to enter. They think it’s evil because another their acquaintance, “La Taupe,” entered years earlier and never returned. After reluctantly agreeing to try a different way, a cave in forces their hand and they enter the sinister tunnel. Inside, they find La Taupe and he offers to lead them to an exit, explaining they are going to have to go down further to get out. Weird shit starts to happen, but Scarlett is able to lead the group to a room housing the philosopher’s stone. The French trio fall for a booby trap and trigger a cave in which seemingly kills La Taupe. Scarlett uses the stone to cure an injury, confirming it is the real deal.
They continue going down and almost immediately enter a vestibule etched with the classic inscription of the gates of hell from Dante’s Inferno. Down they go, and the group starts getting killed off one by one. When George is injured by some demon of the darkness, Scarlett is unable to heal him, realizing it is another trap and that she must retrace her steps to return it and find the real stone. Though it’s a struggle, she does just that, realizing that she is in fact imbued with the power of the stone, and that the group need to admit to their torments. They do and the three are able to open a door at the bottom of a giant pit that actually opens a manhole cover, releasing them into the Parisian night. Romantic.
What the Movie Does Right
There aren’t many movies like this floating around out there. It blended found footage with a globe-trotting adventure not unlike Indiana Jones or the clear standard--bearer in the style, National Treasure. It is entertaining to see a marauding treasure hunt devolve so utterly into the realm of horror, and this movie pulls that off very well.
Another area where the movie really succeeds is the setting. The catacombs are an incredible and relatively untapped setting for horror. Spelunking and urban exploration converge into a gigantic maze of human remains, which is the perfect stage for the events of the film and a big boon on the world-building front. To make sure they really capitalized on it, the filmmakers worked out a deal to actually shoot in the catacombs. This eliminated the need for what would have been a lot of legwork in terms of set design and props, and it gave the movie an even more rich and detailed look and feel not to mention the effect it had on the performances of the actors, which were very good for the most part. Simply put, it’s a lot easier to make things scary and claustrophobic when you are filming in a scary and claustrophobic place.
Final thing I’d like to mention here is that the mechanism of continuing to go downwards used throughout the film is not only cool in concept but it offered some opportunities for really interesting shots. Chief among them is the final scene in the movie where the group opens a hole in the floor that peels away a manhole cover in the street. Is it perfect? Hold, please...
What the Movie Does Wrong
To put a bow on the point immediately preceding this, the film does run into some general gravity-related troubles. I want to mention it here because I guarantee someone would point out if we didn’t say a word about it, but this is a movie about a mythical stone that is heavily rooted in the supernatural sooo, I don’t really care.
What I do care about are the rules of found footage. This movie does not do a wonderful job on that front. It establishes a general reason for filming with the documentary premise. It’s reasonable because Scarlett is a scholar and is seeking this treasure so the world can know the truth. It makes sense for her to want to document it. What isn’t fully explained is the second part of the equation - why keep filming when the proverbial shit hits the fan. This is a crew with a handheld, larger camera, and several head mounted GoPro style joints that offer a POV look at things. Unless the cameras were providing a resource like light/night vision so they could see, there is very little reason to continue filming with at least the larger camera as the movie progresses. Hell, they didn’t even really try to pull the angle of the filming being a means of coping with the ordeal, though they could have.
The final piece is the one that answers the question of how the footage was found and created for showing. The footage didn’t need to be found because three of them made it out alive, but why was it stitched together in such a way? Not really sure. In fairness, I feel that many more recent found footage movies have abandoned even attempting to fit that third piece into the puzzle. This is probably because found footage is so pervasive that it is now more of a stylistic choice to generate a certain, frenetic immersion. Plenty of people simply like the energy of the style, and I can’t say I blame them, but there are a lot of questions that go unanswered here.
Finally, I’d like to just comment on the sheer amount of things going on in this film. It ended up feeling like the filmmakers had too many ideas they fell in love with and decided to just vomit them into an absolutely bonkers plot. The Inferno reference was extremely heavy handed and led to some awkward exposition that broke immersion and made the characters feel very patchy in terms of believability, and some of the more elaborate sequences (which weren’t necessary) offered shitty CG. Overall, this could have used some more focus.
Story: 7 - The combination of adventure and horror via a story about a mythical stone is very interesting. Conceptually, this is stellar. It’s not great because some of the central plot elements are quite unnecessary and sloppy (Inferno).
World-Building / Immersion: 6 - Resulting from what I noted above, this is a surprisingly hard movie to get into when you are watching for content with a notepad by your side. It’s bonkers and there are some highly puzzling choices that make the characters difficult to believe.
Scare-Factor: 6 - This movie offers some of the same feelings of isolation, entrapment and claustrophobia as The Descent with a strange, mind-fuck of a supernatural story to go alongside. The catacombs are a creepy place to begin with, and for the most part, the film capitalizes on the setting and premise. When things really get moving, there are some silly and unbelievable sequences which prevent this from being a higher score.
Effects (or Judicious Lack Thereof): 6 - Catacomb utilization score is a 10/10 here. Almost my entire detraction comes from some completely unnecessary CG near the end of the film. It’s also worth noting that the sound the cameras would pick up in that environment would be nothing approaching what was ostensibly captured.
Overall: 6.5 - This is an interesting movie that I recommend for its sense of adventure and unique atmosphere. Just don’t think too hard about it and you’ll have a good enough time.