As Above, So Below (2014)

The protagonist of As Above, So Below is Scarlett (Perdita Weeks). The film opens with Scarlett on a bus crossing into Iran, pulling down her veil to tell the camera how dangerous it is for her and what awful stuff will happen to her if she gets caught. (I guess they gave her a mulligan on the vlogging.)

Scarlett is in search of the philosopher’s stone, which her father before her had also pursued. She meets an old Iranian man, who happens to have a tunnel that leads from his living room into some more tunnels, where a major archaeological find is buried. This is a big statue of a bull that contains a cipher which Scarlett records on her handycam moments before the Iranian military blows it up. The cipher points Scarlett to the catacombs under Paris, and she leads a team of, you know, some people she found, to, you know. Find the thing. That she’s looking for.

AASB is, yes, a found-footage movie. It deserves some credit, though, for cramming a main cast of six people into some awful, cramped environments and managing to maintain an air of tension without descending into inanity. Virtually the entire movie takes place underground. I’m a trifle claustrophobic, and after the film it was quite a relief to step out of the theater into the open air. I’d be interested to learn more about where and how the movie was filmed, because if it really was in underground environments it must have been pretty dangerous.

Basically, the underground world is the netherworld, the otherworld, Hell, whatever. They set it up to seem like it’s Purgatory, but then, I dunno, they go deeper? So they get to Hell, I guess. Also they see things, images and people and stuff, from their own worst memories. Mostly. Except the piano? Not sure how that one fit in.

The pacing is good (if you like slow burns, which I do), and there are a few original and memorable moments. My favorite is when the intrepid explorers stumble into a low-ceilinged chamber in the center of which is a wooden throne, upon which sits a figure in a black cloak. The figure slowly stands and turns to look at the group, a rather quiet, non-jump scare moment that conveys a sense of dread, which I love. Because, you know, this is Satan. In this dingy, unimpressive, claustrophobic place, where there’s hardly room to move, there’s the man himself. Say hello.

But there’s also not much substance here. There’s a Lara Croft-esque archaeologist lady rushing around trying to find a fabled artifact (and of course a documentary filmmaker tagging along), a bunch of foreign-language inscriptions that need to be translated in a hurry, a lot of tight passages and near misses and typical genre stuff (though, to their credit, the filmmakers avoid the worst of the recent horror tropes). It’s not terrible; it’s not great. AASB is just kind of bland. There’s no reason to really care about any of the characters, least of all Scarlett herself, who gives Heather from The Blair Witch Project a run for her money in terms of sheer unreasonableness.

Another minor bone is the portrayal of scholarship. It’s minor because who cares (besides me), and because every film (especially horror) does this. Hollywood takes things from real life and makes them glamorous and ridiculous in equal parts. This is a given. The weird thing is that Hollywood really doesn’t have to do this. At least, not with everything. There are plenty of things in the real world that are interesting enough to base films on. Archaeology (or whatever discipline) doesn’t have to be dolled-up like this. Scarlett doesn’t have to be a dual-PhD-plus-an-MA-in-Chemistry-wielding, six-language-speaking, urban spelunking superscholar (all of which she literally is, as she tells us herself). But cramming that improbable amount of knowledge into her diminutive British skull enabled her to have, or discover, all the answers to the film’s numerous “puzzles,” a device that streamlines what may otherwise have been an impossibly convoluted plot. The male lead, George, is some kind of all-around genius who translates ancient languages and hangs out in Paris fixing broken clocks for fun (where do you go to major in that?). Between the two of them they piece together all of the shallow “riddles” presented by the various ancient texts they discover.

Archaeology is great. And it involves a lot of standing in square trenches looking at soil and collecting fragments of pottery. What Scarlett does is tomb-raiding. It would have been a simple thing, and far more plausible, to change a few lines and make her an amateur antiquarian, or even an independently wealthy nut job with a Kindle and tons of Project Gutenberg eBooks on alchemy. Then, rather than testing dirt to determine if it’s loamy clay, or more of a clay-y loam, she could have justifiably spent her family fortune (a la Lara Croft) zipping around the world collecting artifacts. Academics have to scrabble to get funding for well-organized research projects. A grant proposal like the one Scarlett must have submitted wouldn’t have flown: “I want to go to Iran to find a bull statue which will lead me to the secret to eternal life, on my own and without any specific research agenda. I will bring you all some falafel. Then maybe Paris?” Right.

Lastly, someone with so much book learnin’ should probably know her Dante. “Abandon all hope, all ye who enter here” is from Inferno, Canto III, line 9. Allen Mandelbaum translates it as “ABANDON EVERY HOPE, WHO ENTER HERE,” [1] but I like the “ye” myself. Classier. But it is, in no sense, a line from “mythology.”

As Above, So Below is not bad. It’s not really much of anything. It’s quintessentially okay. And that’s better than bad. So, that’s good.


[1] Dante. 1982. Inferno. Translated by Allen Mandelbaum. Bantam Classic Ed edition. New York: Bantam Classics, 21. Original emphasis.

6 thoughts on “As Above, So Below (2014)

    • Ah, so it really was filmed mostly in the actual catacombs. In light of that, the filmmakers really do deserve a lot of credit for the way they shot this thing, as do the actors for working in the most horrendously claustrophobic setting imaginable. I think the technical aspects of the film, as the friend I saw it with noted, are its major contributions to the genre (minus a few really horrendous CGI sequences).

      • Yeah, I found it particularly interesting that they managed to light a large portion of the scenes using only the actors’ headlamps. Also, that none of the actors has since had a mental breakdown from being down there so long.

        It’s the first movie in a long time that I’ve wished my motion sickness wouldn’t keep me from watching. Since you’ve seen the entire film, would you say it’s watchable for someone with my motion challenges or is it still fairly shaky/spinning?

      • It’s pretty shaky, and the tight quarters make it even more disorienting–at least they did for me. There’s a lot of falling, and crawling through tight passages, and getting stuck, and other things that I could see causing all kinds of inner-ear havoc.

      • Dang. I was really hoping for some smoothly-shot found footage. Looks like I’ll just have to live vicariously through the watching of others.

        Totally understand why they would make it disorienting through. If it’s not the kind of thing that nauseates you, I’m guessing it adds to the viewing experience by trying to make you feel like you’re down there with them.

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