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New horror film As Above, So Below: see it or skip it?

Perdita Weeks and Ben Feldman play characters who descend into the catacombs of Paris and don't like what they find. As you'd probably expect.
Perdita Weeks and Ben Feldman play characters who descend into the catacombs of Paris and don't like what they find. As you'd probably expect.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

It's a quiet Labor Day weekend at the multiplex, with releases led by the new horror film As Above, So Below, which involves a bunch of young people who head into the catacombs of Paris and find evil lurking (not monsters, just evil in general).

We've seen it. Should you go?

Why you should go:

For all of its flaws — and there are many of them — As Above, So Below creates an incredibly pernicious and overwhelming sense of dread. Much of this is thanks to the sound design, which slowly becomes more and more omnipresent, until it's all but blasting the audience by the film's climax. It's a surprisingly effective bit of film craft, and it ramps up the tension at a point when many films run out of steam.

But just as much is thanks to how vividly cinematographer Léo Hinstin captures the sheer terror of being in a confined space with nowhere to run. As Above makes viewers feel just as claustrophobic as the characters, and much of that is thanks to Hinstin's oppressive use of darkness and tight spaces.

It also has a surprisingly involving story, at least in the early going. While it eventually becomes a standard-issue horror film, the movie starts out as a Da Vinci Code-style quest for the alchemical legend known as the philosopher's stone. At the center of that quest is a woman named Scarlet (Perdita Weeks), who makes an able, entertaining heroine. She's the sort of character you'll instinctively want to see succeed, which makes the early going — when the film is a more straightforward treasure hunt — fairly entertaining, as these things go.

Director John Erick Dowdle also has a solid grasp of what makes a creepy image, and there are moments when he allows the film to tip over into complete nightmare logic, like when Scarlet and her crew (including old friend George, played by Ben Feldman of TV's Mad Men) enter the catacombs and come upon some unholy ritual performed by a group of women in heavy makeup and white gowns, singing composer Max Richter's singularly unnerving score. It sets the tone for what's to come, and it sets the skin to crawling.

Plus, the premise of a horror movie set in the Paris catacombs is so perfect it's a wonder it hasn't already been done 500 times.

Why you shouldn't go:

Unfortunately, atmosphere doesn't prove enough to save As Above. Sometimes, a horror movie can get by solely on mood, but that requires careful composition and attention to the build of the film.

Thus, the central problem here might have been to film the movie as a found-footage horror film, purporting to be the footage from a documentary a filmmaker is making about Scarlet's quest to find the stone and rehabilitate her father's reputation. (He was the one who first was obsessed with the stone.) Too much of the film is spent with the characters running from one place to another, their head-mounted cameras joggling along with them, never allowing the audience to get a good sense of the creeping menace at the catacombs' heart. The film's story is one of slow-building dread, but found-footage filmmaking usually works best as a constant series of jolts to the heart. The filmmaking approach and the story are often in direct opposition.

And, yes, a striking sense of mood is sometimes enough, but As Above's story eventually disintegrates into complete meaninglessness. The third act hinges on a series of reveals that either pass so breathlessly that they don't get any room for the audience to feel their full effect or don't get the explanation required to make sense of them. As Above wants desperately to have a strongly emotional story at its core, but it doesn't possess the character development necessary to pull it off. Instead, the characters boil down to a long series of mysteries that then get perfunctory answers as the film wraps up.

And if you've ever wondered in a found-footage horror film why the characters didn't just stop filming, or who took the time to edit all of this footage together, you're largely missing the point of the form, but you are going to wonder that so much more with this film.

Final verdict

If you're a really big fan of horror, this might be worth a matinee or a rental someday. But despite some cool ideas that suggest Dowdle and company will make a great scary movie someday, this is eminently skippable.

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