Deep beneath the streets of Paris are ancient catacombs. Miles of them are filled with the dead right underneath the feet of Parisiens just going about their day. That’s not the plot of a movie (well it is, but shh), it’s a fact, and you can see exactly why it’d be a great hook for a horror story.
But to actually film there, you’d need the permission of the French government. These catacombs are claustrophobic and not exactly suited to big-budget film crews trying to squeeze down them without causing damage. But a small crew making a found-footage horror film? That could work.
And lo, As Above, So Below became the first production of any kind to be allowed to film in the catacombs. The result is one of the finest found footage movies of the 2010s.
Director John Erick Dowdle had previous horror experience with 2010’s elevator horror Devil, and found footage experience with REC remake Quarantine. Here he combines those experiences to great effect.
A team of explorers embarks on an expedition into the dark labyrinth of the catacombs and ends up trapped by a cave-in. With their only option to keep venturing deeper and deeper into seemingly unexplored depths, the group begins to learn some dark and terrible truths about what’s down there.
Like all the best horror stories, it only comes to pass because of a character’s inflexible stubbornness. Perdita Weeks‘ Scarlett is headstrong, and it’s made very clear from the off that she’s willing to take big risks for the thrill of discovery. It’s this careless abandon that seals the group’s fate and drags the viewer along for an increasingly claustrophobic descent into an allegorical (and possibly literal) hell.
The descent is a fitting descriptor for what the group must do, but also in how As Above, So Below echoes Neill Marshall‘s 2005 movie of the same name. The cave-in scene is almost a recreation of the one in that film, and the way things go figuratively and literally south afterwards feels familiar too. That’s not a knock on this film, though; It’s the beautiful morbid ways the group is steered towards something unknown deep below Paris by a series of misfortunes and ego trips.
The model for much of what occurs in As Above, So Below is Dante’s Inferno as much as it is The Blair Witch Project. The film makes subtle and unsubtle references to it via certain characters and story beats. The things the group experience on each floor of the catacombs reflects aspects of the circles of hell, so it’s no surprise that the climax especially draws from it, as logic and reason take one last hit.
While that’s all well and good, the true power of As Above, So Below is in its ability to sell claustrophobia by actually utilizing those real-life tunnels. It understandably lends the events a stifling air of authenticity and matches the character’s own anxieties about going further into the catacombs.
Even as chaos reigns in the latter half of As Above, So Below, it never loses its tight grip on its disorientating, claustrophobic atmosphere. Just like haunted house movies compel some to go investigate real-life places with a history of haunting, this film makes the idea of going into those tunnels morbidly appealing and terrifying in equal measure.
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