Directed by John Erick Dowdle
Want to talk about a no-brainer of a location for a horror movie? Look no further than the infamous Catacombs of Paris. These underground ossuaries located in Paris, France, hold the skeletal remains of about six million people and have been a tourist attraction for many years. In fact, it’s a good bet that l’Ossuaire Municipal will be housing the dead long after we’re gone. As Above/So Below looks to add to that body count immediately.
The story is simple… a team of ill-thinking adventurers with personal issues venture into the veritable city of the dead underneath the Parisian streets on a quest to find the fabled Philosopher’s Stone and extract it from an uncharted secret chamber. What would motivate them to do such a thing? A previous search for this rare item led to the death of the father of our team leader, Scarlett (Weeks), and now she’s out “to find the truth” as a means to prove that her dad wasn’t nuts. Of course she’s making a documentary about her search so the film is told through the found and assembled footage technique which the writing/directing team of the Dowdle Brothers (Quarantine, The Poughkeepsie Tapes ) can pull off in their sleep.
Before you can say Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, Scarlett; her ex-boyfriend, George (Feldman); Benji the cameraman (Hodge); and a trio of local miscreant guides head down to experience the adventure of a lifetime that quickly ends up being more of a race to the death for most of the film’s characters. Once we’re underground, deciphering what you’re seeing becomes akin to trying to find the beginning and the end of an M.C. Escher drawing. This actually is a good thing. The labyrinth our heroes are traversing goes everywhere and nowhere, but there are mixed results along the way.
Here’s the thing… maybe four or five years ago the found footage approach to this film would have felt fresher. Now all these years later everything feels overdone and as stale as a loaf of week old French bread. It’s all here: the ominous sounds, the loud jump scares (which we are thankfully not inundated with), the creepy people standing around, etc. There’s even an appearance by The Topless Omen Tabernacle Choir, which I quite enjoyed for its sheer weirdness. However, we’ve seen it all countless times (well, maybe not the aforementioned topless choir), and until the powers-that-be in Hollywood can get it through their heads that audiences have generally stopped looking for found footage, we’ll probably be seeing it again and again.
For everything As Above/So Below does right, it does something else wrong. To its credit the characters are likeable and the actors churn out some good performances. With a complete and total lack of score, the sound design here is massively spooky and as top-notch as it gets. Shrieks, screams, booming sirens – they all haunt every frame of film shot underground. There’s a lot of time spent underground, too; there’s just one problem… we see very little of the Catacombs themselves as most of As Above/So Below takes place in offshoot caves, etc. Where are the bones, man? Where are the skulls? This location should have been the star of the show! Instead, with the exception of one really effective scene, we get walls filled with hieroglyphics and Egyptian puzzles and traps ripped right out of the Mummy franchise.
That being said, the Mummy movies aren’t the only films As Above/So Below borrows from. As the spelunking continues, you’ll be reminded of The Blind Dead and just about every other film which toils around in the dirt and dark, especially The Descent. In fact, As Above/So Below‘s main scare mimics one of The Descent‘s best scenes nearly beat for beat.
The first act of the flick is actually pretty good. The second act gets really shaky, and the third act, where we’re supposed to be getting our money shots and payoff moments, is so filled with pointless shaky cam and scripted Escher-like incoherency that I actually started rooting for the characters to die just to end the mediocrity. Don’t get me wrong; I’m all for crazy mazes in movies that are there to confuse and confound our heroes (a la Hellbound: Hellraiser II), but this was just ridiculous. If making zero sense and having absolutely no real resolution at the end was the point of As Above/So Below, then it did its job tenfold. The finale did a great job of negating everything that I was liking about about the film and left me realizing what a missed opportunity this was.
Told through a traditional narrative instead of first person would have benefited As Above/So Below more than words can accurately describe. A nice steady camera with a keen eye, coupled with the kick-ass sound design, could have knocked this one out of the park. As is though? As Above/So Average.
2 out of 5