Mainstream critics tend to miss the boat when it comes to found footage movies, and they’ve done it again with As Above, So Below.
You can’t really blame them. Found footage (or POV horror) is a genre that requires victims of a horror movie to tote around cameras while running for their lives. You see everything from their point-of-view and some noble (or perverse) soul presumably cuts all of the footage together later on. The most famous example is, of course, The Blair Witch Project, although the Paranormal Activity franchise has become a low-budget juggernaut. And that’s the problem – for every good found footage movie, there are at least a half dozen bad ones.
Critics also aren’t trained to watch them with the analytical eye they would more cinematic narratives, and those born before music videos redefined the entire film industry in the 80s and 90s may not prize the genre’s best tool – aggressive jump-cut editing – as highly as those born after.
So you can’t blame the critical community, but you can call them out when they miss on a gem like As Above, So Below.
The strength of the film is Perdita Weeks, playing urban archaeologist Scarlett Marlowe. Her character’s a clear nod toward franchises like Indiana Jones and Tomb Raider. She’s introduced sneaking into an Iranian tomb that’s minutes from being blown up, searching for the Rose Key. This will allow her to translate the words on a gravestone back in Paris. Believing the mythical Philosopher’s Stone is hidden in the Paris catacombs, a warren of graves which stretch for miles below the city, she recruits a less-than-ideal team of cameraman, translator, and urban spelunkers. It’s a wing-ding of a plot, but no moreso than the kind we normally heap on Nicolas Cage, Harrison Ford, or Tom Hanks.
Like the ladykillers I just mentioned, Scarlett also has a roguelike history of using her charm to get others to risk their lives with her, and isn’t above leaving an ally in a Turkish jail if it gets her closer to a historical truth. Her infectious curiosity also makes the suspension of disbelief easier, even when her team discovers the gates of Hell buried beneath Paris.
She also brings an unabashedly British brand of cheer and determination rarely seen in horror movies. Climbing through a tunnel full of loose bones, she turns around to reassure her hyperventilating cameraman, “It’s really not too bad.” When terrifying sounds travel down a dusty corridor and her team cowers, she marches straight at the fresh terror with a resounding, “[Bleep] that, I’m going.” The horror genre as a whole has developed a bad habit of casting victims – no leaders. Scarlett is a refreshingly complete leader in a genre typically based around victims cowering into their cameras.
As Above, So Below does cheat a little. We see from every camera’s perspective, even those strapped to characters later lost to Hell. I don’t think the presumed editor of this all said to himself later on, “I’m going to run down to Hell real quick to grab the rest of the footage.” There’s also a much stronger editing hand than you typically see in found footage movies, especially as the scares ramp up. These cinematic cheats begin to make the movie a bit of a genre mash-up – it uses the techniques of found footage, but by the end, it’s really more concerned with being a movie than in creating a faux sense of “this really happened.”
There’s one more thing to like about the film – its pervasive sense of dread. There are jump scares here, but they aren’t as numerous as you’d suspect. The movie’s focus on rhythm, pace, and behind-the-scenes choreography lets those jump scares shine. I’m not a jumper, but this one had me going.
The film does break down a little toward the end, compiling too much action into too short a time – nearly all found footage films suffer from balancing the action of a climax without breaking the pseudo-reality they’ve established before. As Above, So Below has a clever ending, but it’s a 93-minute movie. Another 10 minutes to maintain the pace established earlier could have improved things.
It’s my favorite horror movie this year, and the best since last year’s You’re Next. It’s not exactly a cinematic triumph, and it’s ridiculous around the edges – I mean, read that plot again – but it’s very effective, and that’s what matters. If you don’t like POV horror, this won’t convert you, and if it makes you nauseous, the camerawork here is some of the shakiest around. If you are a genre fan, however, this is a very solid film in a year starved for good horror.
As Above, So Below is rated R for violence, terror, and language.