The preoccupation of most good horror films is death. But the preoccupation of most great horror films expounds upon that by contending that a life of solitude equates to a horror greater than any death. As Above, So Below isn’t a great horror film but it’s a pretty good one, in large part because its preoccupations are multifaceted. The confining Parisian catacombs bring about an immediate sense of claustrophobia and sense of solitude while its jarring found-footage elements produce a sort of nausea that makes for a difficult viewing, both in a literal and figurative sense.
Scarlett (Perdita Weeks) is first seen on a bus to Iran, addressing her would-be audience through her stealthily placed camera. Her visit finds herself scouring the soon to be ruins of a cave, looking for information that will lead her to the Philosopher’s Stone. The effort is largely an exercise in continuing her father’s work, an alchemist who committed suicide. But it subtly introduces components to her personality that are reinforced throughout the film: she’s clever, takes chances, and copes with the grief of discovering her father’s asphyxiated corpse.
The clues from Iran take Scarlett to the City of Lights, where she and a crew spelunk their way through the Parisian catacombs. Anyone familiar with the English horror film The Descent will surely be reminded of the claustrophobic dread of As Above, So Below, though director John Erick Dowdle perhaps reinforces this tightness a bit too sloppily. The film, shot in the now rote sort of spastic found-footage way, is excessively unpleasant. There are some sublime sequences through this film when characters are hands and knees crawling past bones and rodents, where the confinement of their space is palpably felt. Other times, the jarring movements as they speedily move through the caverns of catacombs is stomach-churning.
This physical reaction is not necessarily a slight against the film though. The uptick in tension as the picture moves along functions in conjunction with the more amplified use of camera movement. As the body count amasses and Scarlett uncovers the truth behind the Philosopher’s Stone, we see her backtrack through the caverns in an attempt to make amends. This sequence is a very impressive replication of haunted house horrors, presenting some truly surreal images that managed to shake my tough exterior.
As Above, So Below’s preoccupations are largely realized through its treatment of Scarlett; it’s her journey that’s the most fully realized as she attempts to remedy her guilty conscious. There are other elements in the film, where guilt intercedes on the other members of her spelunking troupe that are meager attempts to pad the narrative. It’s not an especially bad component to the film, but it does distract from its ambitions, which could’ve been leaner and more concentrated on the horrors of death and loneliness. Despite this, As Above, So Below is a stronger picture in this subsection of found-footage films - it’s a film that arguably benefits from its method of filmmaking rather than being hindered by it.