Cinematic representations of Hell follow the same basic idea: Hell is hot, full of fire, brimstone, and demons, and it is a bastardization of the world as we know it. The gates to Hell are elaborate, fire-covered creations that foreshadow the misery that lies just beyond. We know this song and dance, it’s what we’ve been conditioned to fear, even if you weren’t necessarily raised Catholic. But, director John Erick Dowdle (Quarantine, The Poughkeepsie Tapes) wanted to do something a little different with his 2014 found footage horror film, As Above, So Below. In fact, his vision of Hell doesn’t look much different from the world around us.
Archaeologist and scholar Scarlett (Perdita Weeks, Penny Dreadful) is trying to find the Philosopher’s Stone, an object made by alchemist Nicolas Flamel that is purported to grant the user immortality. This is her lifelong quest as she follows in the footsteps of her deceased father, who also spent his life searching for the stone. After a near-death experience in Iran where she films herself illegally entering a cave system, she discovers the key to finding the stone.
From there, the point of view switches from Scarlett’s shaky cell phone footage to the steady hand of cameraman Benji (Edwin Hodge, The Purge). He is filming Scarlett’s journey to find the stone and capture her accomplishment. She flips through journals, quickly explaining and reciting facts about alchemy and 17th-century religion. There is no doubting Scarlett’s expertise nor her dedication to the stone. Her journey leads into the catacombs where they venture deep below with a group of French punks and Scarlett’s ex-boyfriend, navigating collapsing tunnels and phantom phones. As they progress through the darkness, they eventually wander into Hell itself.
“This is a film that does not wish to conform to just one vision or portrayal of the underworld; [it marries] specific elements to create one stark and horrifying vision of what lies beneath our feet.”
I say wander because the gate to Hell in As Above, So Below is merely a hole in rock. The only distinguishing feature is an inscription stating, “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.” Sound familiar? This warning can be found in Dante’s Inferno, where Dante moves through the seven layers of hell. As they crawl through the hole, there are no towers of flames or cackling demons. Instead, it just looks like another cave: cold, dark, and empty. The simplicity of the gate makes it seem like the warning was merely for dramatics. But as they walk deeper past the entrance, these sinners are tested and confronted with their transgressions.
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Dowdle’s reference to Dante’s Inferno is only one of the several mythologies he draws from to craft his interpretation of Hell. In her article analyzing As Above, So Below’s mythology, Meagan Navarro says the film contains “Egyptian history to Knights of Templar, to alchemist mythology and religion.” This is a film that does not wish to conform to just one vision or portrayal of the underworld; instead, Dowdle decides to marry specific elements to create one stark and horrifying vision of what lies beneath our feet.
Dowdle’s Hell, encased in rocks and darkness, isn’t that different from the world of the catacombs. In having both places look visually similar, it blurs the line between what is real and what isn’t. Are they actually in Hell or are they just in another part of the labyrinthine caves? While the appearance of monsters does eventually answer that question, that initial uncertainty ramps up the film’s tension. Did they actually stumble into Satan’s domain or are they only lost in a series of dark tunnels? Found footage already plays with the idea of what it means to tell the truth on screen, and Dowdle pushes that even further as this band of archaeologists and punks wander further into the belly of the beast.
But this journey into Hell isn’t just about making something new; it is about illustrating the destructive nature of obsession. Obsession is often seen in found footage films such as Grave Encounters, The Blair Witch Project, and Hell House LLC: a character does not want to give up on their project and it causes them to have tunnel vision. They can only see their goal without considering the implications. While this is a subject seen throughout genres, found footage is able to get the viewer even closer to that obsession and its consequences. The fear felt as things begin to crumble and get worse is more visceral when viewed from a first-person perspective.
“[…] this journey into Hell isn’t just about making something new; it is about illustrating the destructive nature of obsession.”
Dowdle capitalizes on this aspect of the genre as he has Scarlett urge the group further and further into the catacombs. While she may have good intentions, this entire trek is fueled by Scarlett’s selfish desires for redemption. She wants to find this stone at all costs and prove that she, and her father, are not crazy. Yet, in searching for that proof, people die and horrors crawl out of the shadows, as unseen forces try to deter Scarlett from wandering any further. But she spits in the face of such warnings, spurred on by her need to prove herself. The first-person camera is able to capture the amalgamation of feelings that follow Scarlett, from her courage and determination to her fear and realization that perhaps she has gone too far.
As Above, So Below was the found footage film that ignited my own obsession with the genre. It is terrifying and it is thoughtful, creating nuanced characters that are both infuriating and sympathetic. No matter their bad decisions, there is still a deep emotional investment in Scarlett, hoping that she will find the peace she so craves. Dowdle constructs Hell as an uncanny extension of our world, just populated with humanoid monsters and hellish hands reaching up out of pools of blood. As Above, So Below is a bold vision for found footage horror and illustrates the creativity and story-building that can be achieved through the first-person perspective.
As Above, So Below is streaming on Netflix. What did you think of the film? Do you like Dowdle’s work? Let us know what you think of it on Twitter, in our Official Subreddit, or in the Fiend Club Facebook Group!