2014 - 93 minutes
Directed by: John Erick Dowdle
Written by: John Erick Dowdle, Drew Dowdle
Starring: Perdita Weeks, Ben Feldman, Francois Civil, Marion Lambert, Ali Marhyar, Edwin Hodge
Though one could strain to compare As Above, So Below to the works of Dante, the comedy in the film isn’t divine; it’s unintentional. And the scares are mostly non-existent. An adherence to the queasy found footage style in this claustrophobic thriller drains it of both the claustrophobia and the thrills. Cameras constantly shaking mixed with whiny screams of terror do not create palpable horror, but director John Erick Dowdle relies on the limited confines of the style instead of generating real dread and atmosphere. You’d think filming in the actual depths of the Paris catacombs could inspire some creative use of the remarkable setting, but, sadly, the location is just a dank backdrop on which helmet lights (and cameras) dart around.
Scarlett (Perdita Weeks) has a ton of fancy degrees, speaks a bunch of languages, and is the daughter of a renowned archaeologist. She’s determined to find the object of her deceased father’s obsession – the Philosopher’s Stone, a legendary rock believed to have the power to turn base metals into gold and perhaps grant eternal life. Following an Indiana Jonesish (in structure only) prologue in Iran, Scarlett heads to Paris and uses various clues to determine the stone is located in the bowels of the city’s catacombs. Together with ex-flame and Aramaic translator George (Ben Feldman), documentarian Benji (Edwin Hodge), and a team of veteran catacomb explorers led by Papillion (Francois Civil), Scarlett determinedly dives into the darkness. Getting caught in a loop of shadowy passages and tunnels, the urban spelunkers wind up in a purgatory of sorts, going around in circles while curiously confronted by traumatic events from their past.
The premise is actually an intriguing one. Take some recognizable bits from The Descent, Harry Potter, The Goonies, and Dan Brown novels, add a suspenseful supernatural ambiance, and set it in an interesting and cinematically untapped real-world locale. All that’s missing, though, is character, story, and craft, which go completely ignored by Dowdle and his brother/co-writer Drew.
Intriguing history of alchemy and Nicolas Flamel is glossed over and used solely as an excuse to get the helmet cams strapped on the crew. Motivations are broad: the archeologist wants a find; the guide wants treasure, the documentarian wants to document. That’s it. Many times it’s hard to tell whose camera we’re looking through or who’s speaking at any given moment, and what’s worse is that it doesn’t really matter. The one-note team members are all just ciphers used to decode the surroundings – surroundings that start to all look the same, admittedly by design, but also at the expense of anything interesting happening.
Business promises to pick up when George turns ominously to someone’s helmet cam after making a translation from wall scratchings and says, “That’s what it says on the gates of Hell.” That promise goes unfulfilled as we’re treated to half-formed riddles, a few shadowy figures popping out of the darkness, and cursory diversions into the past sufferings of the team, including one that is tacked on for convenience right at the end. Perhaps the Dowdle brothers just forgot they hadn’t given that guy a hook yet; they forgot almost everything else necessary to craft an effective chiller.
Maybe we can just try and forget this whole As Above, So Below thing happened and have another on-screen exploration of the Parisian catacombs. There’s a good movie down there somewhere.