[ Director: John Erick Dowdle; Screenwriter: John Erick Dowdle, Drew Dowdle; Starring: Perdita Weeks, Ben Feldman, Edwin Hodge, François Civil, Marion Lambert, Ali Marhyar; Running time: 93 minutes; Certification: 15 ]
Found-footage has saturated the horror market for a little over a decade now, leading to a situation where many movie-goers are becoming fairly exhausted by the idea. The Blair Witch Project in 1999 was one of the first attempts to leave a real impact on audiences, but it never quite took off until Cloverfield picked up the mantle in 2007 and, not unlike Avatar with 3D, planted a seed in the market that studios could no longer resist. Granted, Cloverfield isn’t technically a horror movie, but it’s one of the best examples of the technique, and what gave this current trend its ignition; for whatever reason horror just latched onto the idea more than any other genre. Now ever since we’ve been flooded with P.O.V films where characters run around with a jittery camera while scary things chase them, the latest of which coming in the form of Paris-set chiller As Above, So Below.
Based around Scarlett (Weeks), a young and pretty degree-studded archaeologist who, following in her father’s footsteps, is in the middle of making a documentary about her search for the fabled Philosopher’s Stone (the feeble, throwaway reason for using found footage again), we soon find ourselves stepping into the deep, dark chasms riddling their way under Paris in a National Treasure meets The Descent kind of way… with a bit of Event Horizon thrown in. The most surprising thing about As Above, So Below is its relative restraint with its scares. Taking its leisurely time building a claustrophobic, disorienting atmosphere while offering the characters plenty of opportunity to develop before anything really happens, a few false jumps is all that keeps the film within the boundaries of horror before archaeology makes way for ghouls.
But such a lack of scares isn’t the problem it could have been; look at Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones. That was a film which took an absolute age for anything to happen (if anything happened at all), which, in Paranormal Activity terms, is kind of ridiculous, and it suffered enormously as a result. As Above, So Below could easily be struck with the same stick, yet somehow the ostensible lack of things happening seems to work in the film’s favour. All of the archaeology stuff; the ancient languages and symbolism that Scarlett stumbles upon, keeps things interesting and (almost) fun, like watching a cheap knock-off of Indiana Jones.
When horror begins to rear its head in the third act, it’s something of a hit and miss scenario. Perhaps it lacks that spark leading into the denouement, the payoff that we would hope for, having invested so much time with the film, yet it could be a blessing in disguise. It avoids going down the generic route of Hollywood scares; ignoring a few big jumps, they’re generally well-plotted and often understated – and, most importantly, never fully explained. The creepiest thing about As Above, So Below is that by the end we still don’t really know what’s going on. Have they descended into hell, or is it something else entirely? That’s for you to decide.