“I don’t go underground, remember?”
That’s a life philosophy most people can – and should – get behind, but adherence to such a creed would ensure that a film like John Erick Dowdle’s creepy, crawly, and surprisingly clever “As Above, So Below” wouldn’t exist to terrify horror-hungry audiences. To get to the icky good stuff, we need to go underground, even if life proves to be far easier on the surface - and no matter how many times the film’s terrified audience will demand that its various protagonists “don’t do that!” or “don’t go there!” or just plain “no! not that!,” all of which appear to be suitable responses to the material at hand.
Urban Outfitters-clad and dreamy-eyed, we meet Scarlett (Perdita Weeks, a fitting new scream queen) as she’s jostling about on a bus into Iran, where she’s determined to descend deep into a set of ancient caves set to be blasted to kingdom come that very night. Scarlett may be young, but she’s highly educated – with a black belt in krav maga! that will maybe come in handy later! – with a big interest in digging up important artifacts lurking under major cities, particularly as said artifacts apply to the long-sought “Philosopher’s Stone.”
No, this isn’t a “Harry Potter” sequel, but damn if the first fifteen minutes of “As Above, So Below” don’t provide a ride more bumpy than anything Scarlett experiences on her crowded bus (and weak enough to make awkward “Harry Potter” connections sound both probable and possible).
Scarlett’s search, as silly as it may sound, is apparently interesting enough to attract an amateur documentarian - Edwin Hodge, doing hilarious work as Benji, who continually operates as an audience surrogate thanks to his repeated refusals to participate in patently dumb ideas - that wants to follow her quest.
Armed with information procured from the Iranian caves, Scarlett sets about decoding it, which involves the assistance of her clearly angry (and underground-averse) ex, George (Ben Feldman, appropriately charming), some sort of weird catacomb street urchin, and a gang of underground spelunkers who all look oddly like models.
Convinced that the Philosopher’s Stone is located in the Parisian catacombs directly underneath Flamel’s grave, Scarlett ropes her motley crew together to go searching for the key to eternal life and really, really bad life decisions. The catacombs are creepy enough on their own – after all, they do house legions of dead people – but Scarlett wants to go still deeper into the tombs, into literally uncharted territory. It’s obviously a terrible idea, and from the moment Scarlett, George, Benji, and their new pals descend underground, it’s clear that nothing good is going to come from it.
Dowdle and his cast capitalize on the obvious claustrophobia early on, temporarily trapping Benji in a tight pathway filled with human bones, hyperventilating and panicking in ways that will inevitably affect sensitive audience members, leaving everyone huffing for more air. Yet it’s not the claustrophobia that carries throughout the rest of the film, it’s the inhuman acts and leaps of faith that Scarlett and company are subjected to, from crawling over piles of human bones to running from increasingly otherworldly baddies.
Yet Dowdle, alongside screenwriting partner (and brother) Drew Dowdle, don’t push too hard on the scares for the film’s first half, instead choosing to gently mix terror with humor in admirably enjoyable ways. Deep in the catacombs, a phone rings – a phone! there are phones down here? – adding up to the perfect blend of actually scary and genuinely amusing.
Those laughs don’t come forever, though, slowly petering out until the crew is so deep inside the nightmarish catacombs that it’s hard to fathom they will ever get out. The Dowdles’ setting is a clever one for a horror film, simply because there is only ever one way for their characters to go, and turning back is just not an option. There’s only one path to take, and it gets bloodier and gorier and stranger as the feature winds on.
Not content to terrify their stars with darkness and twisted treasure maps, the Dowdles also send their cast straight to hell, and as things get more dire, actual nightmares begin coming to life, freaking everyone out in the process. These are big, wide fears, but that allows them to scare everyone, and even though they may be rooted in personal pain (such as the reason why George doesn’t like caves), they’re freaky and dark enough to send everyone screaming.
The film’s finely tuned middle act, a fast-paced and quick-witted journey into (possible) madness, eventually gives way to an unsettlingly over the top final section that relies far too much on larger setpieces and supposed “big scares” that are never as good as the smaller, weirder stuff. “As Above, So Below” works well enough when it’s try to be its own big, creepy piece, but all that crumbles (like so much ancient catacomb wall) when the Dowdles go for more broad movements. Stay above ground, but if you’re going to go under, go deep.