Over-Analyzing "As Above, So Below": How Not to Conduct Archeological Research

I love bad horror movies.

As I previously mentioned on this blog, I don't ask a lot of my horror movies. If I can walk out of a theatre with half a clue about what I just saw and why everybody is dead, I'm more or less satisfied. Demons with only a tenuous grounding in any kind of backstory? Eh, sure. Ghosts that haunt specific locations miraculously travelling halfway around the world? Yeah, why not? Supernatural beings who spend inordinate amounts of time racking up the family's utility bill before causing any kind of real harm? Fuck it, fine. But what I can't tolerate are horror movies that amount to little more than a long chain of plot holes, jump scares and screaming.

So I had high hopes for As Above, So Below. Unlike the last, say, 487 found footage horror movies I've seen, this one wasn't about a nebulously evil supernatural presence terrorizing a family. No, this one was about a team of naive anthropologists/sketchy French treasure hunters discovering a horrifying secret in the catacombs beneath Paris. It had everything it needed to be great - a unique setting, a fuckload of human remains, and a legitimate reason for the entire movie to be filmed in the dark. There was no way they could fuck this up.

Watch that trailer and tell me you're not already preparing to shit your pants.

They completely fucked it up.

Sure, this movie has its fair share of blood, screams and scares, but you spend so much time just trying to figure out how any of this could possibly make sense to anyone who hasn't recently sustained a traumatic brain injury that the movie completely ceases to be scary. Consider that:

There is zero reason to break into the catacombs illegally. 

Sometime near the beginning of the movie we're introduced to the main character, Scarlett Marlowe. She's a genius, and not just in "I can solve Rubik's cubes" sense of the term. No, Scarlett is the genius that other geniuses masturbate to when their grant applications get rejected. Despite being played by a 28-year-old actress, she is already a professor at one of the most prestigious schools in the United Kingdom and holds two PhDs and a Master's degree in three largely unrelated fields - Urban Archeology, Chemistry, and Symbology, a field whose prominence in The Da Vinci Code has apparently made most people forget that it's fictional. She speaks four active languages and considers herself fluent in two dead languages, and she's a black belt in krav maga, because of course she fucking is.

I'm six years younger than her and I have approximately  1/12th of her education.

Despite being a full-time faculty member at a university, Scarlett seems to spend most of her time travelling the world, illegally sneaking into countries and tampering with priceless artifacts. A misguided sense of duty to her dead father has her wasting her immense talents on a lifelong, fruitless search for the Philosopher's stone, a mythical item that every single one of you already knows the properties of from reading Harry Potter. At the start of the movie, she's seen breaking into a tunnel system behind an unwitting Iranian man's home to photograph a bull statue whose engravings apparently point to the location of the Philosopher's stone in Paris. Now, don't believe what archeology graduate school pamphlets tell you - getting a collection of graduate degrees in obscure academic fields is not a one-way ticket to six-figure salaries and solid gold bathtubs, which means someone is clearly funding Scarlett's research and the travel that goes with it. Which means there is absolutely no reason for Scarlett to break into the catacombs illegally.

None of this was necessary.

See, the average member of the public can't just burst into an important ancient site and start mucking around - in some places, that can actually get you arrested. If As Above, So Below was about a renegade band of teenagers going treasure hunting during spring break, I could understand why they need to break in. But as the movie spends so much time painstakingly emphasizing, Scarlett is not just some random schmuk. She's a world-renowned expert in at least two fields that aren't fictional, and she has years of experience in excavating sites every bit as delicate as the catacombs. Getting access to the catacombs shouldn't involve hiring a sketchy local at a nightclub and sneaking away from a guided tour - it should be a matter of filling in the correct paperwork. People do it all the time; if your life is ever so devoid of excitement that you find yourself following archeology news, you'll notice that new discoveries are made in those catacombs every couple of months. All Scarlett has to do is think up a non-insane way of explaining to a grant committee that she's looking for the philosopher's stone, wave her diplomas around a little, and go collect her cheque.

Scarlett, posing in front of an archeological dig that cost lots and lots of money.

Oh, did I mention a cheque? Because that's actually kind of important. See, Scarlett is attempting to conduct a major archeological expedition with no money, and that's actually not how things work at all. Much to the chagrin of every university on Earth, academics cannot survive on tap water and the tears of graduate students alone. They need funding to make their research happen. Scarlett is going on an expedition that will involve busting through ancient stone walls hundreds of feet below ground, she doesn't even bring a fucking shovel. She has no equipment, no trained assistants, no open access to the area and no one who'll think to get worried if she disappears into a tunnel beneath the Earth's crust and never comes out again. We're also forced to assume that the plane tickets, hotel costs and missed pay associated with this expedition are costs she's happy to pay out of her own pocket, even when a clearly superior alternative is available. The movie never really gives us a reason why Scarlett opts for illegally breaking into the catacombs. We live in a world where you can totally get grant money to investigate UFO sightings, but we're expected to believe that a renowned academic like Scarlett has absolutely no way to get money or permission to poke around the catacombs, even when she has evidence that the hidden chamber actually exists.

And that way, you don't have to trust your life to a good-looking French stranger.

On top of all that, the financial issues are actually the least of her problems. See, after hundreds of years of white, English-speaking academics proudly marching into other countries and taking their shit, archeology started to get a bad reputation among the populations being studied. And since it's kind of hard to deny that you're the bad guy when you're exhuming the remains of somebody's Grandma and boxing them up for your museum, the field of archeology decided it was time to adopt a code of ethics. Experts go back and forth on the specifics of said ethics, but it basically boils down to this: don't touch shit that isn't yours without asking. The Paris catacombs are in France. Scarlett is from England. So by barging into the catacombs illegally, she's not only exercising poor judgement, she's shitting all over the code of conduct for her entire profession. Those catacombs are an incredibly important part of France's history, and she's 100% willing to risk causing massive damage to them (more on that later) for her own purposes, without even the courtesy of letting them know what she's up to. What does she care? It's not her ancestors laid to rest down there. Again, the decision to illegally break in is all the more inexplicable, since we're never given a solid reason why an academic powerhouse like Scarlett would be denied access to a place that is routinely studied by archaeologists. I'm forced to assume she gets off on breaking into historical sites, and planned this whole expedition just to give the nation of France a big, dirt-covered middle finger.

Which would explain the movie poster.

Need more evidence that the hidden catacombs of Paris are ridiculously easy to get access to if you ask nicely? Consider this - As Above, So Below was actually filmed in the Paris catacombs, specifically in the parts that aren't open to the public. This film isn't a documentary - it's a shitty, low-budget horror film filled with B- and C-list actors, and they still got permission to stomp around down there with cameras strapped to their heads so long as they tested to make sure the air was breathable (a little detail Scarlett forgets to worry about).

With all that said, I could almost forgive her cavalier attitude toward excavation permits if she was a decent, careful scientist. But as it turns out...

Scarlett destroys more history than she uncovers.

Scarlett Marlowe is what would happen if Indiana Jones had a daughter with Nicolas Cage, and they sent her off to her first dig with a jackhammer and a blindfold. In just 93 minutes, she manages to cause more damage to the study of human history than a Human-Dinosaur Coexistence museum. As I mentioned in the previous point, she's attempting to uncover a long-lost underground chamber with at least one recorded collapse in its history, and the only things she thinks to bring are flashlights, strangers, cameras and her own flagrant disregard for handling ancient artifacts with care.

And as it turns out, those flashlights are as bad at their jobs as she is.

Our first clue that Scarlett operates with all the delicacy of a surgeon performing brain surgery with a sledgehammer happens right after Scarlett and company sneak away from their guided tour. Scarlett knows approximately where the lost chamber should be, but the only way to get there is a long, narrow tunnel filled with an assortment of bones. 

Which, y'know, shouldn't have been that much of a surprise, this being the fucking catacombs and all.

Scarlett immediately decides that the whole crew is just going to crawl right the fuck over all the bones to get to their destination, and that is the exact moment I began to wonder if she was actually a radical Young Earth creationist deliberately attempting to sabotage the entire field of archeology. See, the underground graveyards of Paris date back as far as the 400s. Not the 1400s. The 400s. Half the bones down there should have the structural integrity of a scoop of protein powder by now. You probably think of bones as strong and difficult to damage, because yours are still full of the blood and marrow and collagen fibres that give them their strength. But after centuries of drying out in a dusty tunnel, those things shatter as easily as your willpower on the second day of a diet. I spent some time working in a lab that handled human remains from the 1960s, and those things were already so delicate that we had to have foam padding on our workbenches, because dropping the bones onto a hard counter from even a few inches up was enough force to potentially damage them. And even a little bit of damage to those bones could be catastrophic, because Scarlett has already made the find of a lifetime.

Could have saved yourself one painful death by burning car if you'd just stopped there.

Remember, those catacombs provide a lot of the information we know about ancient Paris - everyone is buried down there, from soldiers to prisoners of war to ordinary citizens. By examining the tiny details of skeletal remains, we can figure out who these people were, when they died, and how they lived. Pitting in the bones can tell us that we're looking at a victim of poor health. Prominent ridges along muscle attachment sites tell us we're looking at someone who did something physically demanding for a living. Scarlett has just come across a previously unknown tunnel filled with hundreds and hundreds of people; they could be the victims of a plague we never knew about, or captured soldiers from a war we had no records of, or even just members of an ethnic group we had never known to live in that area. Excavating and examining a gravesite that large is the kind of archeological find most scientists can only dream about. And as it turns out, learning more information about the people in those tunnels is just a pipe dream, because Scarlett chooses to march her crew right over them, grinding the remains into bone meal and destroying valuable clues that might have told more responsible scientists all about the people who used to own those bones. 

Who wants to publish papers on lost gravesites when there's alchemy to chase after?

And the history-stomping fun doesn't stop there! When Scarlett finally gets to the other side of the tunnel - which promptly collapses behind her, effectively ruining any chance the world might have had to study those remains - she wanders around smashing things for a while and finally uncovers what she's been looking for. Deep below ground is a chamber containing the perfectly preserved body of a 600-hundred-something-year-old Templar knight, piles of priceless treasure, and what they believe to be the long-lost Philosopher's stone set into a mural on the wall. This is obviously the find of a lifetime; any responsible scientist would want to keep the scene as undisturbed as possible, carefully documenting the exact locations and condition of everything in the room, so it can be used as a reference for the final excavation. So of course, that's exactly what Scarlett does. 

Oh, no, just kidding. She marches right up to the Philosopher's stone and pries that fucker right out of the wall.

For a woman who owns so many maps, she is awfully bad at planning.

The stone, of course, turns out to be booby-trapped, causing the whole chamber to collapse, trashing all those priceless, irreplaceable artifacts they've just uncovered, as well as straight-up murdering a member of their party. The cave-in gives them no choice but to venture further into the caverns, smashing walls, tunnels, bones and statues as they go. 

Although, in fairness, I would punch these statues too.

And while we're on the topic of booby traps...

The booby traps in the catacombs are pathetic. 

In keeping with the movie's apparent pioneering of the "Indiana Jones but with more blood and screaming and oh god what was that faceless nightmare in the darkness just now I'm sorry mommy it wasn't my fault it wasn't my fault" genre, the catacombs are absolutely chock full of booby traps. First of all, it's absolutely ridiculous for there to be booby traps in the catacombs - remember, these things weren't filled with treasure, they were effectively just giant underground warehouses for dead people because the ancient French people were too lazy to fence off more graveyards. And even as things move more and more toward the supernatural, there is zero explanation for who or what, exactly, is responsible for all the traps. Is it Nicholas Flamel himself? Unlikely - he may have been an alchemist, but there's nothing to suggest that he could command the undead. Ghosts? Probably not - the stone supposedly grants immortality, and the people involved in its creation are hinted to still be alive. A cult? I don't think so - we get brief glimpses of a cult-like group of people from time to time, but we get no explanation as to who they are or how they could pull of elaborate stunts like smuggling a broken piano or ringing phone into the catacombs. Ultimately, it doesn't really matter anyway, because the supernatural booby traps encountered in As Above, So Below are little more than useless.

So... what happens if you choose to just not pull this thing's hood off? Is it nothing? Because I bet it's nothing. I mean, it's literally tied in place.

Most of the traps the group encounter are either undead things that leap out of the darkness, or specific objects from their childhoods that trick them into reliving painful memories. In the gif above, Scarlett sees her dead father with a noose around his neck, and she feels so guilty about having ignored his phone call the night he hung himself that she wanders over to pull off the hood. Another character sees the face of his drowned brother in a pool of water and has to be held back from diving in after him. One character actually dies when he comes across a recreation of a car fire that evidently claimed the life of someone important to him, yelling 'it wasn't my fault' as he gets pulled into the flames. Someone else comes across the exact piano his family had when he was a child, noting that the A4 key is broken just like the one he used to have. The piano doesn't seem to be associated with any kind of negative memory or pose any kind of meaningful threat, but it's still pretty creepy.

Another supernatural booby trapped foiled by the powers of getting creeped out and walking away.

And that's what makes most of these booby traps so pathetic - the only thing you have to do to defeat them is to get freaked out and not touch them. Whatever supernatural entity is guarding this place clearly went to a lot of time and trouble to track down all this random shit from their childhoods, only to have the group survive by walking briskly away. None of this stuff can move or chase after the group, and after the first time they come across something supernaturally creepy, they're not exactly falling over themselves to touch this stuff. The car sucks its victim in from a distance to roast him alive, but it only gets the opportunity to do so because he runs toward it, ignoring the others' warnings. Basically, if you want to live, all you need to do is close your eyes and ignore this stuff like it's the smelly kid from eighth grade, and there's literally nothing it can do to harm you.

This guy's life was almost saved with the power of common sense and upper body strength.

The undead things that keep leaping out of walls and dark tunnels seem like more of a problem - and they are, until about 3/4 of the way through the movie. See, up until that point, the group spends a lot of their time being chased, killed and jump-scared by these things, which range from random screaming women to random living statues. The survivors manage to get past all of it, only to have one of the aforementioned statues jump out and bite Scarlett's love interest right on the neck, like some kind of concrete vampire. Scarlett realizes that the magical healing stone she's been dragging around for the entire movie is a fake; since the bleeding man is the only person on Earth who'd be willing to date an impulsive, short-sighted lunatic like herself, she has no choice but to run back to the chamber to find the real stone. How does she get past all those booby traps a second, and then third time as she returns to his side?

She runs really, really fast. 

Who would have guessed that you shouldn't stop to talk to this thing?

Every haunted person, noise and decorative item pops up exactly like it did the first time around, in exactly the same place it was before, and the only thing Scarlett does to avoid becoming overeducated hamburger is run past it without interacting. At one point she even stops to scoop up the documentary camera her deceased cameraman dropped and uses it to bash some kind of haunted thing right in the face before continuing her sprint back to her lover's side. That's it. That's the only thing she has to do to emerge from the tunnels unharmed. Most houses have better security systems than that. If you're given hundreds of years to figure out how to guard something priceless, and every single obstacle you put up can be thwarted by ignoring it or jogging swiftly past it, you have done a shitty job of guarding that thing. The catacombs aren't as much a "chamber of deadly, unimaginable horrors" as they are a "crappy carnival haunted house with poor safety measures". 

None of that really matters too much, though, because it turns out that they're guarding nothing at all. Remember that...

"As Above, So Below" apparently means "believe in yourself".

When Scarlett pries Flamel's stone from the wall and dooms half her crew to painful deaths in the bowels of Paris' coldest, dampest tunnels, she gains all the powers that go with it. Or at least, she appears to. The stone is supposed to grant immortality, enlightenment, and miraculous healing powers. At first, it seems to work perfectly, as Scarlett uses it to instantly patch up a massive bleeding forearm wound. The stone is later revealed to be a fake, which has strange implications for that one girl's forearm, but whatever. I can live with that. This isn't Oscar-winning shit.

Pffffft, what a baby. That's barely a scratch.

The fake stone chooses to crap out right when Scarlett's love interest finds himself with a gaping hole in his jugular, which leaves Scarlett no choice but to race back through the caverns to find the real stone. She bursts back into the chamber, stuffs the fake stone back in place and... nothing happens. It turns out that whoever wanted to protect the stone did not set up an exchange system to exchange the real stone for the fake one on the off-chance a good-hearted tomb robber had a change of heart. Desperate, Scarlett searches along the walls for a clue, and comes across some kind of dusty gold orb. She stares at her reflection in the orb for a moment and then dashes back out of the chamber.

Sure, you can read and recognize the inscription over the entrance of Hell, but you can't figure out that people don't leave priceless treasures lying around in the open.

Any sane member of the audience would figure that she'd given up chasing a mythical magic stone and instead decided to try her luck at tying a tourniquet around her boyfriend's throat, but lo and behold, when arrives at his side she sticks out her hands and heals his wounds just like magic. It's all thanks to "As Above, So Below", she tells him. The ancient Hermetic maxim, which comes from the longer phrase "That which is Below corresponds to that which is Above, and that which is Above corresponds to that which is Below, to accomplish the miracle of the One Thing" is somehow the key to all magic. There was never any philosopher's stone at all - the only thing she had to do was truly understand that phrase, and all the powers are hers. In essence, Scarlett could do all these miraculous things all along - she just had to believe in herself.

Is this a horror movie? Or an episode of Dragon Tales?

I don't even have words for how fucking stupid that is. 

For one thing, the phrase "As Above, So Below" comes from the ancient writings of Hermes Trismegistus, an author purported to be the Greek God Hermes himself. The phrase is typically interpreted as referring to the macrocosm and the microcosm; in other words, the things that happen in our little human world are reflected in the big, bad Universe occupied by God, and vice versa. It's a fancier, less creepy way of saying "God is everywhere and he's watching you, like, all the time, and also everything you do is connected to Him somehow". Some people - like Scarlett, apparently - have interpreted it to mean "everything that happens in my brain happens in real life if I just wish for it hard enough", but that's an easy theory to test. Quick, wish as hard as you can for a unicorn to show up in your living room. Close your eyes. Wish harder. Wish until you can feel your brain spilling out of your ears. Now open your eyes. Is there a unicorn in your living room? I didn't fucking think so.

Damn you, cruel world. 

Can you even begin to imagine the implications if "As Above, So Below" actually worked? For one, Scarlett's entire expedition will have been in vain. I mean, was there any point in going down there? Four people actually died, just for Scarlett to learn something she could have figured out with an old alchemy textbook and a decent self-help VHS tape. Plus, how does that work once she escapes the catacombs? Does she just have magical powers for the rest of her life now? Is she going to be an immortal healer from now on, all because she read an inscription and stared at herself in a gold ball on a cave wall? And since the stone isn't a physical object, there's no reason to assume that its powers are limited to one person. Can Scarlett pass on her powers to the entire world, just by explaining the story of what happened to her? Or can she bring people down there to stare into the gold orb, creating an upper-class of rich people with literal superpowers. This is the most important part of the entire movie, and the whole thing is so unclear that even the IMDb synopsis for this movie can't figure it out.

There is one thing at the end of the movie, however, that's terrifyingly clear, and it's that...

This movie has terrifying implications for Paris' sewer system.

At the end of the movie, Scarlett and her last two surviving companions have delved so deep into the ground that they should be feeling the heat from the Earth's core at any moment. Exhausted, paranoid and hopeless, they are chased by screaming horror beasts until they come upon the entrance of a well. It's too dark to see the bottom of the well, but the group doesn't have time to safely rapel to the bottom. Undeterred, Scarlett announces that they're going to fling themselves down it. With the power of As Above, So Below, if they just believe in themselves, they'll escape the endless cycle of hell they've been trapped in, and go back to whatever it was they were doing in their normal lives.

For Scarlett, daily life mostly involves looking doe-eyed in tunnels. 

They take a literal leap of faith, and just as Scarlett predicted, they don't die horrible deaths. Instead, they find themselves in a chamber with an exit over their heads. They crawl out through the ceiling, and find themselves back on the streets of Paris, standing next to an open manhole cover. 

And that's the whole lesson of this movie, kids. Hell isn't a mythical, metaphysical place. It's just a few feet below the garbage-filled streets of Paris. As Above, So Below indeed.

Which bad horror movie should I pick on next? Leave it in the comments.


  1. my issue with this review is that you're taking everything that occurs in this movie from an incredibly scientific and literal standpoint - it's meant to be hell. hell is supernatural, unfathomable to living humans, properly indescribable except in what text we have now theorised from religious documents. what they experience is not supposed to be normal, and part of the premise of the film is that, upon being in hell, some of the characters are implied to have repented of past sins, while others have not. if you had looked deeper into some of the backstories insinuated in this film rather than speaking out of your own pompous ass, you might have learned that it wasn't all meant to be incredibly literal and scientific. i'm sure your understanding is superior with the phenomenal films you've certainly made yourself.

  2. This is literally the best thing I've ever read. From the second she started listing her "qualifications" in the movie, I pretty much knew it would suck. She's one of the most annoying characters I've ever watched on screen. She's such a pompous as that she doesn't realize there are probably more qualified people than her to go dig out the catacombs. Thank you soo much for putting all my irritation at this movie into words.

  3. The philosopher's stone wasn't fake or a worthless stone. The reason she could heal her love interest is because she carried the stone through the gates of hell where it was written that everything is reversed in every sense once you make it past the gate. So the stone that she was holding becomes an internal philosopher's stone instead of being an external object. When she goes back to the room with the treasures to put the stone back - she sees her reflection and understands that all external becomes internal and all internal becomes external and THAT is why she can heal with her hands, not because of plot hole. You just didn't get what the journey was about. Pay attention before you diss the next plot, you are not as invincible as the main character. Just pay attention. It's not that hard to do.

  4. ALthough, I do agree with you on the all the rest.

  5. I agree with most of your review, but it seems you didn't quite grasp the concept of what the place was. It's not a terrifying implication of Paris's sewer system because, normally, it wouldn't have been beneath the streets like it was depicted at the end. The exit they made was a portal of redemption to their own world - if they reopened the manhole, the realm they were in would be replace with underground sewage passageways. The terrible booby traps weren't set up in advance by anything, they were simply there because the place was cursed and evil. It's meant to represent your greatest regrets right in front of you in an attempt to draw your towards them, in a moment of delusional and false hope, just to suck you in and kill you. The monsters weren't supposed to capture you right away; the trap was the place itself, and you were stuck in it dealing with their terrifying presence until you forgave yourself for your past failures and learned to move on. Other than that, great review.

  6. I would hate to watch a movie with you in the room. I guess in your opinion every movie in the world needs to be scientifically accurate in order to be good. But then again that's probably why you don't write or direct anything.... because nobody would care to watch it

  7. I’m surprised there’s no mention of the many references to Dante’s Inferno throughout the film as they descend through the 9 circles of hell, encountering things that Dante and Virgil had seen in that part of the Divine Comedy. I would do a little more research before bashing a film like this, just my personal opinion. Many of the faults you find with this film is because you see the area they go through as the catacombs. They’re going through hell, experienced by them as the catacombs. Interviews with the crew explain more on this if you’re interested.


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