[Here there be spoilers]
Because AS ABOVE, SO BELOW showed up unexpectedly on Netflix, I had the pleasure of watching it again to make sure it was as good as I remembered.
The closest analog I can think of is THE DESCENT, which is a tight, conventionally made horror film and one of my favorites, so the fact that AS ABOVE, SO BELOW shares some beats with it in a few conspicuous ways docks a few points, even if the similarities were unintentional and/or unconscious. But THE DESCENT is so good at ramping up the conflict and the obstacles; the similarities between the movies may just have to do with storytelling leading in the same directions. Even so, if I notice, I dock, and THE DESCENT came first.
Other than that, AS ABOVE, SO BELOW is one of the best found-footage horror movies I’ve seen, and other filmmakers should take note. The found-footage subgenre suffers from a few common foibles—too much shaky cam, bad special effects, an improvisational script that sometimes leads to ridiculousness and repetition, and the usual horror problem of an unsatisfying ending. Like most subgenres, once you start watching a whole bunch at once, they start to seem increasingly similar.
For instance, most found-footage depends on the unseen monster, which allows for a lot of simpler practical tricks (see PARANORMAL ACTIVITY) that are nonetheless effective…for a time. The longer the monster remains unseen, the more tension you generally have, but you eventually have to show something (I’m looking at you, BLAIR WITCH, wonderful though you are). It’s a delicate balance, because you eventually need to see something, at which point horror tension tends to plummet. Or the budget limitations mean that the monster isn’t believable. That shifting face effect and blobby eyes and mouth effect are fooling no one.
In the realm of found-footage, even more so than in traditional film, practical effects are king. Found-footage works within a very narrow suspension of disbelief, because the images seem more realistic than traditional film—but it’s totally worth it, because if you operate within that narrow suspension of disbelief, you can create entirely believable magic, and found-footage horror works by capitalizing on that believability and realism. But cameras that make things look more real are completely unforgiving, and so is your audience if they don’t believe what they’re seeing in a medium that looks spontaneously filmed. We’re more programmed to see fake in something that looks more real. Fortunately, AS ABOVE, SO BELOW depends almost entirely upon practical effects. Considering how ambitious they were, the fact they did the almost the entire movie old-school (makeup, set design, prosthetics, and good old-fashioned unsettlement) deserves mad props.
And then there’s the issue that every found-footage film needs to address, and most of them do so poorly: Why are people still filming? The blood and shit has hit the fucking fan. Why are you still lugging around a camera and not running like hell? There’s a point where almost everyone in the audience says, This is where I’d jump ship. I’m out. Even when the horror would have continued, there’s just a point where you’d put down the camera. One of the found-footage movies that addresses the unrealistic tendency of camera people to continue filming well is THE TAKING OF DEBORAH LOGAN.
AS ABOVE, SO BELOW does one better, because it never has to address the continued filming. There’s one camera person and three cams attached to headlamps. The main camera is discarded at one point, but when the protagonist picks it up again, her reasons for doing it at the time make sense without threatening the suspension of disbelief, especially since she doesn’t actually end up using it—keeping it for posterity, but without bogging down a scene. Three personal cameras and a main camera make for all the angles an audience could ask for, and you don’t lose any of the intimacy and immediacy that found-footage is so damn good at.
I love good found-footage because of that intimacy and immediacy, and I’m not the biggest fan of CGI. I don’t think we’re at a place yet where CGI is indistinguishable from reality, at least in my eyes. In animation films when everything moves in the same animated way, I’m fine, but when they’re used for special effects in live-action films, it works much better as an accessory to practical effects than the entirety of the effect itself. The minute I see too much CGI moving the way reality doesn’t and lit the way reality isn’t, I notice, and it takes me out of the immersive moment. I don’t believe it, and that’s the cardinal sin of film-making.
Found-footage is more than old-school. If done right, it feels real, like something that could really happen. You may not open your closet door tonight and see a wriggling tentacle monster, but some of my most unsettling moments at night are when I turn off my bedroom light and the closet light is on…and I don’t remember turning it on. Until I open my closet door and confirm no one’s waiting inside, the tension is incredible. (Despite my thanatophobia and sometimes intrusive thoughts, I’m actually pretty grounded and skeptical in real life, so supernatural forces are not my go-to explanation for things. Makes watching horror at night a little more doable.)
Like I said, AS ABOVE, SO BELOW was ambitious in what it wanted you to believe. It was a bit of INDIANA JONES meets THE DESCENT, with searching for Flamel’s Philosopher’s Stone (Harry Potter fans will thrill at that) in the delightfully macabre Paris catacombs, scenes inside the (implied) Notre Dame clock tower, the elaborate caves beneath the catacombs. I’m reminded also of MR. JONES, another ambitious found-footage film that didn’t quite land with the same conviction but still earned my serious respect for what it was attempting to do. AS ABOVE, SO BELOW makes you question your reality, but you never question the reality of what you’re watching, and that’s not an easy line to walk.
The main characters, played by Perdita Weeks and Ben Feldman aren’t complete unknowns, and that throws off some people’s suspension of disbelief within found-footage, but they weren’t familiar to me. I found them engaging, intelligent, just enough reckless without being totally foolish, and if the rest of the characters don’t feel as fleshed out, they nevertheless feel real. The movie benefits from being more thoroughly scripted, so although you get pockets of improv, you don’t feel like you’re losing time to it. In reality, the brain processes out all the extraneous bits in conversation, but in fiction, written and watched, you don’t, and the repetition and doubling back can become extremely annoying.
I’m a big fan of religious elements in my horror, elements that make you question your own understanding of religion. They tend to leave me shaken in the best kind of way, and they’re usually better than the kind of grandiose efforts you get in action/thriller films (see THE DA VINCI CODE). Nothing’s ever hard-confirmed, but AS ABOVE, SO BELOW takes a decidedly Danteian turn, and I find hell scarier when it feels real. Not overblown or overdone or lots of fire, not a Dore drawing, but real. Like a physical place I could be. And AS ABOVE, SO BELOW disquieted me. Not quite as much as THE DARK SONG, but it also had a different intention than that film.
Fans of alchemical history and INFERNO will probably enjoy AS ABOVE, SO BELOW and recognize all the little references that they don’t make too obvious. I like a film that trusts its audience and doesn’t have to explain everything along the way.
In general, I really like AS ABOVE, SO BELOW as found-footage and a bit of horror-slash-supernatural-slash-adventure. Genre mashups usually do pretty well, because they don’t feel as beholden to trope standards, and there’s more room to be surprised. Based off of the trailer, I found AS ABOVE, SO BELOW entirely unexpected. I was transfixed during the first viewing, and it held up just as well after the second.