John Erick Dowdle’s As Above So Below

I don’t know if there really are a bunch of creepy catacombs beneath Paris that you could get lost in, but if there are I definitely would not check them out, even if the fabled philosopher’s stone itself was buried somewhere down there as it is in John Patrick Dowdle’s As Above So Below, and extremely effective and sometimes downright terrifying horror film. It’s a found footage, which I’m usually not a fan of, but here the technique is employed in a less shaky, obnoxious and obtrusive way that it often is, and feels more fluid. The story tells of ambitious historian Scarlett (Perdita Weeks) who has figured out that far below Paris’s streets in an ancient cave system lies the grave of Nicholas Flamel, the infamous alchemist of old who also shows up in Harry Potter. She assembles a team of fellow scholars and guides and they all descend into these tunnels, where it soon becomes clear that Flamel’s grave isn’t the only place they lead to. The title is key, as they discover a strange metaphysical duality down there where no matter how deep they’ve gone, whenever they try to go back up, it only keeps getting deeper. Then they start seeing hellish visions, nightmarish ghosts and spirits of long dead demonic cult weirdos, and start dying one by one. This can of course be compared to Neil Marshall’s The Descent and it is similar in some scenes of claustrophobia and disorientation, but it’s a less vicious and hectic affair. There’s another film called Moscow Zero (that I’m pretty sure only I saw) with Val Kilmer which is pretty much the same idea but in Moscow instead of Paris and it feels a bit more akin to that in its esoteric nature and thick atmosphere. The visions they see and the resulting gory attacks are quite threatening, but for me the scariest scene comes early on when they first enter the catacombs, and are still quite near the surface. They hear spine chilling singing coming from one chamber, and as they look in and see impossibly eerie women standing still in unison choir dressed very strangely, their guide informs them nonchalantly “always weird people down here.” There’s a casual absurdity to that scenario that chilled me deeply and is a terrifically creepy aperitif to the more in depth horrors waiting for them farther below the earth. Aside from an ending that feels a bit too neat, this is an impressively doom and dread laced story that makes you feel genuinely lost and hopeless alongside its characters way down there, and tangibly threatened when they are hunted and preyed upon. Very effective stuff.

-Nate Hill