REVIEW WRITTEN BY NATHAN LERNER /For 21st Century Media
Invoking found footage as a conceit, “As Above, So Below” is premised on the battle between mortals and supernatural forces. It centers on Scarlet (Perdita Weeks).
With a polished British accent, Scarlet touts her academic pedigree. She has a masters degree, two doctorates, speaks four current languages, and is versed in two dead languages. Did I neglect to mention that Scarlet also has a black belt in Krav Maga? Imagine, if you will, Laura Croft with less pronounced cleavage and a bigger brain.
What do you suppose is Scarlet’s putative purview of academic expertise-would you believe alchemy? It is true that alchemy has long been discredited as a bogus pseudo-science. However, once upon a time, it was accepted as a legitimate and influential discipline. Its adherents included Sir Isaac Newton-yes that Isaac Newton-you know, the guy, who first propounded the concept of gravity. Sir Robert Boyle, who is hailed as the father of modern chemistry, was also a prominent alchemist. His involvement antedated the bifurcation of alchemy and chemistry into two altogether separate scholarly paradigms.
Through most of its history, alchemy conflated elements of magic, religion, medicine, cosmology, mythology, and spiritualism. Alchemists sought to discover the so-called Philosopher’s Stone. They believed that this would enable them to ferret out a universal solvent, the elixir of life, and the formula to transmute base metals into gold. With the advent of modern science, the Hermetic principles of alchemy fell from favor in intellectual circles.
That doesn’t stop Scarlet. She remains in fervent pursuit of the Philosopher’s Stone. Scarlet is following in her father’s footsteps. Her dad had been a leading authority on the history of alchemy, who eventually committed suicide. As one character suggests, studying alchemy is a pathway to madness.
In an early vignette, Scarlet sneaks into Iran. There, amidst dropping bombs, she crawls though an underground passageway to study the inscription on an ancient carving. In the process, Scarlet risks not only her own life, but the life of a married man with children. It turns out that her machinations also led to the imprisonment of a close colleague, George (Ben Feldman from television’s “Mad Men”). She abandons him to languish in a Turkish jail.
Scarlet decides that the secret of the Philosopher’s Stone lies in the catacombs of Paris. These ossuaries hold the remains of an estimated six million people.
Since Scarlet has not mastered Aramaic, she desperately needs someone to translate some inscriptions written in this particular dead language. It just so happens that George is working in Paris. He is an expert in Aramaic, so Scarlet tries to entice him to help her. Big surprise-George is still stewing over the fact that Scarlet abandoned him to rot in a Turkish jail. Understandably, he wants nothing to do with her.
Somehow, despite George’s vehement protestations, Scarlet convinces him to join the expedition. In addition to George and Scarlet’s American cameraman, Benjie (Edward Hodges), she recruits a trio of Parisian cataphiles, Papillon (Francois Civil), Souxie (Marion Lambert), and Zed (Ali Marhyar). They will serve as guides for the outing.
“As Above, So Below” is the first film to ever make use of the off-limits section of the Parisian Catacombs. It employs them quite effectively to infuse a strong sense of a spooky atmosphere. However, the screenplay itself offers little else new to recommend the film. For a vastly superior subterranean flick, which involves survival against adversity, I recommend “The Descent” for your consideration.
“As Above, So Below” does have its share of laugh out loud moments. Unfortunately, I do not believe that any of them were intended by the filmmakers. One of the funniest involves the recurring sound of a telephone, which rings intermittently in the catacombs. Is it an auditory illusion? The group eventually discovers a rotary telephone, sitting on a nicely preserved wooden stand. Why did the telephone company install a telephone in the catacombs? How is the telephone still operative? How is the wooden stand still in good condition, notwithstanding the moist environment of the catacombs? To me, the most confounding question of all is who would be calling? Is someone ordering a pizza from the bowels of the catacombs? I think that the filmmakers missed a golden opportunity for product placement. Wouldn’t Comcast or Verizon have welcomed the opportunity to advertise their latest promotion in conjunction with the incongruously situated telephone?
If you are adverse to the prospect of bats; rats; enclosed spaces; crawling through human skeletal remains; wading through waist-deep, stagnant water; subterranean cave-ins; centuries-old curses; spooky creatures; herky-jerky camera work; or, worse of all, being trapped underground with an overbearing female, who is obsessed with alchemy; you would be well-advised to skip this film. On the other hand, if you take a certain perverse pleasure in watching a schlocky horror film, laced with unintentional humor, “As Above, So Below” might just fit the bill.
**1/2 R (for bloody violence/terror, and language throughout) 93 minutes
Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.