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‘As Above, So Below’ Review: Sloppy, Scary, and Strangely Sincere

as above so below

In the latest of this summer’s attempts at wooing moviegoers with thrills and spills, As Above, So Below plunges into cinemas with promises of adventure and horror as a group of adventurers — some more willing than others — find themselves inadvertently trapped in a circle of Hell itself.

Just what the warm weather and blue skies asked for.

Right off the bat, the film – the latest from director John Dowlde and written with his brother Drew – is not a masterclass in plotting and writing. While it certainly is great popcorn fun, it does take leaps and bounds that even outlandish movies would stop to consider, with the opening sequence in Iran somehow leading the film’s heroine to Paris of all places, and into the infamous catacombs where six million were buried, for some convoluted reason or other. In a small moment further down the film, said lead heroine spots a carving which quotes Dante’s famous line from Inferno about the gates of Hell, and somehow manages to attribute it to the wrong man, despite being an Oxford professor.

Fortunately the cast more than makes up for any shortcomings in the plot – Perdita Weeks, an all-but-unknown is the lead heroine Scarlet Marlowe, a driven, charming, Indiana Jones-type who is easily the film’s best selling point in terms of characters, and a woman who deserves her own TV or book series about her adventures. Scarlet is driven by a painful past towards seeking out a legendary artifact and the supporting cast of local catacomb experts, Scarlet’s former love George (Ben Feldman) and Scarlet’s plucky cameraman Benjy (an underused Edwin Hodge) generally stand out well in such a stripped-back approach to horror.

The horror here is quite a feat in itself, combining the handheld tactics of fore-bearers such as The Blair Witch Project and Cloverfield to induce claustrophobia – one sequence involving Benjy is enough to elevate your breathing – and modern horror shock techniques to make every jump meaningful and terrifying in a way that doesn’t necessarily involve the use of outlandish gore.

In fact, As Above, So Below joins a recent trend amongst Hollywood horror that is shirking the torture porn nihilism that infected cinemas nearly a decade ago, and is revitalising traditional scares and infusing them with twists that make them their own. As the group descends further into the creepy catacombs in Paris’ underbelly, the psychological and personal scares are bigger than any gross-out moments which the film largely steers away from; one moment involving a second group of people in the catacombs and the music they make is genuinely hair-raising.

The film is not a standout classic, however, by any means; the plot is a touch too thinly spread and unevenly-timed. The first half of the film is largely set-up before the second half, which turns up the terror and the speed to disconcerting levels. Secondary characters such as Souxie, Zed, and even Benjy only get perfunctory moments. While the main concept is intriguing, the execution never quite pays off, which is a shame.

And yet, As Above, So Below manages to be a film hiding an important message underneath all the scary moments painted terrifying by first-person POV. The message of the film is intrinsically about sins and demons, but more importantly about forgiveness. Director Jon Dowdle has a history of this – previous horror outing ‘Devil’ dealt in the nature of sins and secrets. For that, it must be commended.

So, if you want to go out and see the best horror movie of the year, then keep looking; however, if you want to see a film that, once you strip back the layers of commercial hype, the handheld selling point, and the frights, actually has a sense of self-aware fun, a  beating heart (albeit the one of a proto-Indy), and almost a message, then go try As Above, So Below. After all, what’s the worst that could happen?

four stars

You can watch As Above, So Below in cinemas now.