While the ad campaign for Universal’s latest found footage horror feature (poster art featuring an inverted Eiffel Tower beneath a mountain of skulls) grabbed my interest early on, I was curious to see As Above, So Below for one reason: the legendary Paris Catacombs, which figure prominently in the story. While this subterranean City of the Dead – containing the bones of several million people, most of them relocated from overcrowded churches, ossuaries and mausoleums in the late 18th century – has been the subject of many horror tales (including the so-so 2007 thriller Catacombs), it’s my understanding that this feature from filmmaking siblings John and Drew Dowdle is the first non-documentary production to be allowed access to the actual site. Real-life urban explorers should take note of that, as the Catacombs are among the world’s most popular macabre destinations… and if nothing else, As Above might even help seal the deal on some of those alt-tourism plans.
That said, there’s sadly very little of the real Catacombs on display in this film, since much of the action takes place in a secret labyrinth of passages that diverge from the real historic tunnels. Most of this domain is represented by specially-built sets, which to the filmmakers’ credit are actually very well designed; still, the sparing use of the actual location was my first disappointment. Second, there’s nothing much new under the ground as far as the plot is concerned. It involves the quest of maniacally driven Archaeology student Scarlett (Perdita Weeks) and her crew in search of the mythical Philosopher’s Stone – a well-known legend in the history of alchemy and mysticism (centuries before J.K. Rowling dragged it into pop culture via Harry Potter). Dragging along a reluctant ex-boyfriend (Ben Feldman) and a shady team of local urban explorers, Scarlett follows a series of cryptic clues from her notes and photos, leading the crew into an unmapped region deep beneath the streets of Paris. After a cave-in blocks their original escape route, the search for another way out reveals one set of creepy ancient inscriptions after another… and when they actually encounter the tired phrase “Abandon Hope Ye Who Enter Here” etched over a doorway to darkness, you can probably sort out what’s coming next.
Now, I’m sure a lot of you already hit a roadblock in my first paragraph upon reading the words “found footage,” and I can understand your misgivings… but I’m going to risk some incoming fire by stating that I myself enjoy many found footage and/or mockumentary horror projects – sometimes even against my better judgment. (I’ll be writing more directly on this topic in a future article, so start gathering ammo for the inevitable comment wars.) Fortunately, the Dowdle brothers manage for the most part to steer clear of the genre’s usual shortcomings – such as cameras shaking way too much for comfort or realism, or their operators continuing to film long after any sane person would drop the rig and run like hell (the team members all wear pin-cams with their headlamps). The tight POV approach here often helps add to the feeling of oppressive claustrophobia, as the characters are breathing down each other’s necks while the shadows tighten around them and the bone-covered floor literally crumbles beneath their feet. The narrow, damp stone passageways – often barely wide or high enough for a single person to squeeze through – call to mind some of the most effective moments from Neil Marshall’s The Descent, a horror classic to which the Dowdles owe a creative debt; in fact, one character’s claustrophobic panic attack is almost a direct lift from that film.
For all its shortcomings – obviously scripted dialogue, awkward omissions (no one thought to bring helmets or gloves?) and a self-endangering, monomaniacal protagonist who makes Indiana Jones seem like a pussy – As Above, So Below still accomplishes what I assume to be its main goal of being an elaborate spookhouse attraction (the kind Universal knows how to pull off by now), complete with creepy random figures jumping out at the right moments (one of those scares is particularly effective, despite the fact that you know it’s coming), and an immersive sound design that serves to disorient the audience and make them more vulnerable to the usual loud sonic stingers. If that’s what you expect to find, you’ll get your ticket’s worth on this ride. If you’re looking for a new twist on the found footage concept, you won’t find it here… and sadly, you won’t be swept up in the Gothic grandeur of the real Catacombs either, since they feature a lot less on screen than I’d hoped.