Legend speaks of the Philosopher’s Stone, an alchemical substance crafted by Nicholas Flamel, as having the ability to produce gold and grant immortality. Determined to complete her late father’s quest to discover this fabled stone, scholar and archeologist Scarlett (Perdita Weeks) is driven to extreme measures to restore her father’s reputation, who after allegedly going insane from his pursuit of the stone took his own life. Her search earns the attention of a documentary spot, thus, the “hand-held” camera style used throughout the film.
As the film “As Above, So Below” progresses, Scarlett gathers a team of explorers to venture into the uncharted catacombs beneath Paris in search of the precious, mythical stone. Descending deeper and deeper into the world’s largest mass grave, ghosts of individuals the team once knew emerge from the shadows to haunt them. At this, they realize they have crossed over into the true realm of the dead: Hell.
It’s made clear early in the film that these are vengeance-seeking ghosts. The team members whom they haunt were all present at their death, and every member felt responsible — a case of survivor’s guilt. Every ghost residing in the catacombs below Paris represents the guilt they struggle with above: thus, the title. Although, conceptually, the film introduces a brilliant idea, the premise is never flushed out and fully realized.
Instead of investigating individual histories and building character development, the film quickly skims over the plot-thickening details, leaving the characters feeling flat and static. Although the acting was clean and fairly convincing, the dialogue felt scripted and unnatural. Without any empathy for the characters, watching them die off one by one was easy – and predictable.
Much like the characters themselves, the entire drive for the film felt cliché, unbelievable, and utterly senseless. As malevolent and vicious supernatural forces haunt the team of explorers, they all continue unrealistically in their expedition for the sole reason that Scarlet desires to prove her father “wasn’t crazy.” Of course, this is done only so the film can progress.
In the past, the “found footage” genre has proven to be extremely successful. Productions like “The Blair Witch Project,” “Quarantine,” and the “Paranormal Activity” franchise have gained massive popularity among their respected audiences, especially considering their low budgets. While these films have demonstrated that there is an art in the “shaky camera” style, the hand-held camera effect was drastically overdone, poorly executed, and left me dizzied. It was nearly impossible to focus on any given object with the constant motion blur. While I understand this stylistic approach was attempted to establish a sense of urgency and claustrophobic tension, the overall result was unbearable to watch.
Alongside the hideous camera work, “As Above, So Below” failed as a genre of horror as well. Most moments of terror are heavily dependent on cheap, predictable jump scares and an anti-climactic plot twist in which – SPOILER ALERT for remainder of paragraph – three members of the team escape hell, simply by coming to terms with their guilt. The first problem with this is that it was unbelievably easy to exit hell. At one point, Scarlett runs alone and football tackles demonized ghosts (which was unintentionally hysterical) to retrieve the philosopher’s stone and save her dying companion.
The second problem is that there is no horror in a resolved ending. True horror is found in psychological dissonance, which the film failed to cultivate. The greatest effect a horror film can have on an audience should not be temporary, but ongoing and thought provoking. An alternate ending that could have evoked this emotion is one in which the world the team escapes to is a twisted, alternate reality, one not truly their own.
Although plenty of opportunities in “As Above, So Below” exhibit potential, none expand on what could have been a truly daunting experience.
Christian Herrera is the Arts and Entertainment editor of The Huntingtonian. He can be reached at email@example.com. The review reflects the view of the writer only.