What’s the Punishment for Being a Stock Character?
Well, I’ve never seen a Pelagian horror film before.
“As Above, So Below” is a collision of lots of intriguing ideas and settings. It’s about a British professor’s quest to find the Philosopher’s Stone in the Paris catacombs, despite warnings that the Stone is hidden near “the gates of Hell.” So we get treasure-hunt adventure; religious horror; nature horror, as the archeological spelunkers get trapped in cave-ins and swim through tunnels deep underground; and what we might call “justice horror,” that chillingly mathematical genre about the return of repressed old sins.
The best-handled element is the nature horror. The Catacombs are creepy and cool–and legitimately scary. The audience in my theater was happy to yelp, gasp, and cringe as the characters clamber over human bones and get stuck in terrifying wormholes.
The treasure hunt also works pretty well. There are a few moments where characters make implausible logical leaps (“‘Rectify’! That means we have to go back and replace this stone!”) but overall the quest bounces along pleasurably. Our Hermione, here named Scarlett and played by Perdita Weeks, dabbles in creative chemistry as well as arcane knowledge. There’s a Ptolemaic hinge, and a kind of glittery invisible ink which can be revealed by mixing common cleaning products and then setting them on fire.
Unfortunately, the religious horror and justice horror basically don’t work at all, in part because they’re subgenres which especially rely on compelling characterization. Spoilers below.
Every character has been issued a maximum of one trait and one item of backstory. Scarlett is driven, and her father killed himself after failing to find the Stone. Boom, done, that’s all you get. George (Ben Feldman) is reluctant, and his brother drowned in a cave. Papillon (Francois Civil) likes graffiti and has a mysterious burn on his hand; none of the other cavers get even that much individuality.
All of these characters feel constructed. They’ve been made to fit the narrative, rather than the story flowing out of their traits and histories. Seriously, George’s brother didn’t just die, but drowned in a cave just like the waterlogged ones they’re now about to explore?
The Catacombs lead to an underground warren in which the characters are confronted by their past sins, or whatever they feel guilty about. There’s also lots of random spooky stuff which doesn’t seem to have any connection to the guilt/justice theme. So there’s a mysterious hooded man in a chair, and some attacking rock people, and the ghost of George’s drowned brother, and a freaky lady in white, and a phone that rings underground… and it all starts to feel like (if you’ll pardon the phrase) one damned thing after another. A haunted hayride, not a sojourn in purgatory. But that isn’t the biggest issue.
The biggest problem is the movie’s shallow portrayal of guilt, penance, and redemption. This is the heart of the film, it’s what the quest is leading up to, and it is just a mess. First of all, no distinction is made between guilty feelings and actual moral wrongdoing. So Scarlett’s “sin” is that she didn’t pick up the phone the night her father killed himself. Obviously anyone could understand why she would feel guilty, but it’s not as if the audience is going to agree that she was responsible for his death. Greg’s “sin” is even more deck-stacking: He was also a child when his younger brother was injured in the cave, and he got lost as he tried to get home, so by the time he returned with help his brother had died. The movie wants to depict guilt and punishment for sin, but doesn’t want us to judge the characters as harshly as we might if they’d really done anything wrong. (I was hard on “Deliver Us from Evil,” but that movie is a great example of both solid, simple characterization and actually letting its heroes do terrible things.)
Meanwhile the third character whose “sin” gets explicitly named suddenly says, “I have a child I’ve never seen. I know he’s mine, but I won’t admit it.” Hey look, something that’s actually wrong! Blink and you’ll miss it, since there were no hints that this character had any hidden sin and this child will never be mentioned again. Like the ringing phone and the boy lost in the cave, the abandoned child exists solely to fill a cardboard box marked “SIN.”
After many trials, Scarlett learns what the Philosopher’s Stone really is. It’s her. I mean, I think it’s us, if we tap our potential, or something. She sees her face reflected in a bronze disc and gains the power to resurrect the dead. She then explains that if the surviving cavers admit their sins and jump into a bottomless pit, they will be saved. They do and they are. And they walk away down the Paris streets, looking fairly freaked out. Roll credits.
The quest for the Stone was about rules: Learn the rules, then follow them, in order to gain power. When the characters enter Hell suddenly the rules don’t matter. They’re disrupted and discarded—caves loop in impossible circles, a lost caver moves with inhuman speed. This feels both frightening and satisfying, since the idea that life has intelligible rules always seemed a little childish. The characters’ quest object shifts from power to redemption or healing. When I thought this was where the movie was going, I was really impressed with the weird decision to combine a Philosopher’s Stone movie with a tour-of-hell flick.
But when Scarlett sees her face in the disc, the rules come roaring back. She figures out the trick that allows her to tap into her inner power and save both herself and others. I don’t think you need orthodox theology to wonder, “Is that all there is?” Not only is there an answer—inherently unsatisfying, as Douglas Adams knew—but the answer was inside me all along?
Everything interesting in this world, from music to sex to religion, exists because we know we’re not sufficient unto ourselves. Switching the story from “confront your sins” to “unlock your hidden superpowers” makes the story smaller: a piece of self-comfort, an easy out, which is the opposite of what I want from a horror movie.
Eve Tushnet is a TAC contributing editor and blogs at Patheos.com.