Note: this review is featured on the Phoenix Film Festival’s website.
I often insist that found footage horror films serve no justifiable purpose in the cinematic landscape. They are generic, plodding, dull, jump scare-heavy features that have derivative characters doing nonsensical things. As Above, So Below follows that familiar formula but delivers on atmosphere and balls-to-the-wall craziness that so few horror films aim for nowadays. The characters even serve a purpose within the convolutedly plotted story as it aims to be more than base-level scares! The horror. But a far too packed conclusion with too many loose ends alongside a soft message for its protagonists leaves the film with a sour taste in the viewer’s mouth. The story opens with Scarlett (Perdita Weeks), an adventurous, intelligent girl sneaking into Iran to navigate caves that are about to be collapsed underneath the city’s infrastructure. There, she discovers a supposedly lost language map that can lead her to a magical stone that will act as a supreme source of power through alchemy and medical wonder.
Her journey needs some guidance, though, so she draws upon her old friend, George (Ben Feldman), to decipher where exactly these maps lead. Sure enough, they belong to a place in the Paris catacombs, a 200-mile stretch that holds over six million deceased citizens underneath the city itself. Various parts of the catacombs have collapsed and some areas have secret tunnels that no one has ever discovered. Until now, since they know exactly where to look. A young local, Papillon (François Civil), guides these rambunctious fellows through the catacombs and leads them through various rough spots, only for things to go south quickly. Inner demons emerge as characters begin to battle claustrophobia, the troubles of their past, and the growing unrest as they continue to go lower and lower. They see what has haunted them all of these years as they sift through caverns and ever-increasing holes. It’s as if they are descending into Hell.
The film deserves credit where credit is due. The story, however convoluted and contrived it becomes in the final act, remains engaging and entertainingly confusing during its course. Loose ends feel like they are constantly being addressed and the lore is dense and sprawling. The problem remains within the premise of the filmmaking itself: why, oh why, does the film need to be in found footage format? What does it possibly add? The first thirty minutes are hackneyed, awful filmmaking in terms of its direction and look. The film is inappropriately framed and doesn’t rely on any cinematic stylings, nor does it feel more personal due to its connection with the characters. Instead, it feels like the shoddy, cheap way to go when making a horror film in today’s age. While films like The Descent have handled this kind of narrative more thrillingly and not relied on the gimmicks of the filmmaking style, here the presentation feels insincere to the audience and like a knock-off rather than an original idea.
Claustrophobia does play an important part in the film’s effectiveness. Most characters have cameras pinned to their headlights except for Benji (Edwin Hodge), who carries a handheld that he usually places in front of him when navigating through spaces. A brilliantly staged scene has him being the last of the pack going through a tight spot and getting stuck; instead of shifting the camera, director John Erick Dowdle lingers and lets the uncomfortable sense of hopelessness grow. The film truly creates an unnerving feeling with an emphasis on closed walls and other visually demonstrative cues of unrest. Yet the story itself becomes incomprehensible and overblown in its explanations. The narrative doesn’t make much sense with too much mixed Egyptian/Parisian/personal mythology to prevent thematic coherence or narrative sense from occurring. As Above, So Below is exciting when it avoids horror conventions, but more often than not it falls on those crutches and never walks on its own.
Grade: ★★½ (out of 5)