John Erick Dowdle’s As Above, So Below makes a spirited, if ultimately beside-the-point, effort of trying to convince audiences that it shares its main character’s interest in history and all of its hidden truths. Scarlett (Perdita Weeks) follows in her alchemist father’s footsteps by traveling into Iran and beneath its surface, looking for clues that will lead her to the philosopher’s stone. She finds one, only to be subsumed by a noisy and dark show of supernatural terror that seems as if it was realized with as little as a few red glowsticks and a camera tumbling into a dimly lit abyss. It’s a predictable preview of the bigger freak-out that follows, but in between, as it persuasively depicts Scarlett’s talents for sleuthing, conveying her passion for her life’s work as being unmotivated by the allure of treasure, the film promises, if not a dissertation on alchemy exactly, then a character study informed as much by what goes bump in the night as it is by one woman’s reckoning with grief.
In the end, the film only half-heartedly embraces the latter ambition, content as it is to present itself as a mere twist on Cube, with Scarlett and a team of fellow explorers struggling to find, then evade, the twisted, puzzle-like pull of the gates of hell beneath the streets of Paris. The film predictably alternates in scaring its characters by tapping into their deepest fears and having them rub shoulders with the relics of a past that—as is the case in most movies of this sort—insists on being undisturbed. As an agoraphobic’s worst nightmare, it’s unpretentious and tensely executed, though it grows increasingly wearisome the clearer it becomes that the filmmakers only care for the traumas of their characters insofar as it allows them to imagine unexpected sights materializing inside the limestone-walled bowels of a cosmopolitan city. And as the characters stumble toward the mercifully tension-releasing conclusion, specifically through a pothole that’s more aptly understood as a plot hole, As Above, So Below comes out on top less as a successful haunted-house attraction than as the most unlikely and perverse advertisement to get sick fucks the world over to finally get to the City of Lights.