There is one true star in As Above, So Below, the new horror feature opening this week from Legendary Pictures, and that is its setting. The catacombs underneath Paris — those miles of twisting tunnels and chambers holding the bones of some six million souls — are a literal “Empire of Death” (as inscribed on a sign leading into the main ossuary) and seem like an incredibly fertile place to set a tale of supernatural terror. That’s just what director/co-writer John Erick Dowdle and his brother, co-writer Drew Dowdle, have done with this sometimes silly, sometimes frustrating but undeniably creepy little film, which follows six explorers into the labyrinth to face a parade of horrors.
With the exception of 2010’s Devil, the Dowdles have worked pretty exclusively in the “found footage” esthetic and adopt it again here, although like most filmmakers these days, they bend the rules of the format as they see fit (as usual, we don’t know how all this footage was edited together). The film opens with an American named Benji (Edwin Hodge) making a documentary about Scarlet Marlowe (Perdita Weeks), a young British history professor intent on following her late, suicidal father’s study of alchemy and learning the location of the Philosopher’s Stone, the mythical alchemical substance that can turn lead into gold or help one achieve immortality.
Aided by historian and translator George (Ben Feldman, Mad Men‘s nutty Ginsberg), who has a crush on her, Scarlet deduces that the Stone may be hidden deep within the Catacombs and enlists a team of urban spelunkers to guide her, Benji and George past the approved tourist areas and into the more unexplored regions of the tunnels. Once they’re down there, however — all conveniently outfitted with GoPros on their heads — it’s not long before the group begin seeing visions of events from their own pasts and realize that they’ve awakened forces beyond their understanding.
There is no denying that the Catacombs — where the Dowdles did a lot of the actual filming — are one hell of a creepy, claustrophobic place, and the director gets a lot of mileage out of the ancient, winding, darkened corridors as the cameras track our little group farther into the depths. A couple of bizarre manifestations — a piano that inexplicably appears in one chamber, a ringing phone in another — actually work to heighten the eerie atmosphere. It’s at the midway point that the movie starts to veer off into cheesier territory, as the group stumbles upon a vault that looks like an abandoned Indiana Jones set and statuary starts coming to life via the magic of CG.
It’s also in the second half of the film where the personal cameras become actively irritating: as the characters begin running and scrambling frantically through the tunnels the footage become increasingly shakier and harder to watch — when it’s not turning almost deliberately during one sequence into something resembling a first-person shooter game, complete with speed run. If that is the future of this format, forget it. As it stands, As Above, So Below could have benefited from holding the camera steady now and then, even if that meant shooting it — God forbid — more like a traditional horror film (The Descent did just fine that way, thank you very much).
Still, I found myself clutching my arm rests in suspense, thanks again to the location and the fact that the movie does plunge full-on into pure supernatural evil, something I find refreshing in these days of teen vampires and home invasions. Nothing is ever really explained — which is okay — and the business about the Philosopher’s Stone is just gobbledy-gook. The cast helps too; while they each get at least one chance apiece to do something stupid (the first person to die turns out to be especially idiotic), no one is especially annoying. As the obsessed Scarlet, Weeks just manages to be sympathetic in a role that could easily tip over into being hateable, while Feldman’s George comes off the best as a frightened yet steadfast friend.
The Dowdles borrow from the aforementioned The Descent and their own, superior Quarantine quite liberally, and it remains to be seen whether they can evolve beyond their admittedly effective but primitive shock tactics into superior genre filmmakers. There is perhaps a great horror film waiting to be made about the city of the dead that resides underneath the City of Light, but the B-level As Above, So Below, while fun, is clearly destined for the bottom half of that potential double bill.
As Above, So Below is out in theaters now.