Dir: John Erick Dowdle
Starring: Perdita Weeks, Ben Feldman, Edwin Hodge, Francois Civil, Marion Lambert, Ali Marhyar
Running Time- 93 mins
Adventurous scholar of the ancient art of alchemy, Scarlet (Weeks), is convinced that she has discovered the hidden location of the fabled Philosopher’s Stone. Accompanied by a ramshackle group of treasure hunters, they soon discover terrifying secrets buried deep within the Catacombs under Paris.
The bones of approximately six million people lining the walls of the labyrinthine Catacombs are an absolute godsend of a setting for a horror film. Were it not for the fact that such an intriguingly macabre location actually exists, it almost would seem too far-fetched to be believable in a work of fiction.
Not taking the worn-thin route of ghost hunters, the film fantastically dares to be different in centring the narrative on the search for a long lost artefact. This is far more in the vein of a big budget Hollywood adventure film and is welcomingly unexpected for a film that appeared to be yet another found footage piece.
The film begins with a taught and pacey thrill-ride where the audience is thrown right into the action, capturing a feeling of unprepared excitement. Following lead Scarlet, her search for clues to the stone’s location leads her to a series of forbidden Middle-Eastern tunnels. As the tunnels are about to be blown up, a brilliantly tense set-piece sees her trying to escape, rubble flying at the camera from all directions and a mysterious hanging man.
The elements of an adventure story are by far and away, the film’s most entertaining moments. Scenes involving having to set-fire to the back of a stone to find hidden clues or having to move certain stones in the right order to avoid being crushed have all the giddy abandon of a National Treasure film. Whilst this starts out as being enjoyably daft, the riddle-solving and characters all shouting at one another becomes laughably more reminiscent of the Crystal Maze, the film only becoming entertaining if it can be imagined that Richard O’Brien is watching them all just off-screen and cackling maniacally.
It was a bold move to add so many historical elements to a film whose primary focus is to scare. As a result of this, however, the number of times the two scholarly characters take time out to give a brief history lesson to the camera means that the film’s momentum is dropped like soap repeatedly throughout. With the action taking place, conveniently, away from the iconic area of the Catacombs, the ‘preserved’ historical sections of the labyrinth end up looking far too much like purpose-built sets. The idea that the treasure room hasn’t been touched in centuries holds no water as a result of its shabby, cheap presentation and the historical credibility vanishes instantly.
After taking an irritating amount of time to actually get to the Catacombs, the film turns into a hard and uninspiring slog.
With the combination of feeble dialogue and awkward, stilted interaction between characters, what could have been an adventurous romp turns onto a bordering act of attrition. The few narrative turns are stupidly predictable and what little development the characters undergo doesn’t make them any more likeable or interesting.
It is a shame to say that this drop in intrigue extends to Weeks as well. As things get progressively worse for the doomed non-entities, she becomes far too cold and carries the unpalatable air of ‘British-ness’. With an upper lip so stiff it’s practically starched, her steely resolve to remain in a tranquil state and progress forward is completely unbelievable and jars with the reality aspect of the found footage genre. With a slapdash attempt at redemption and aspirations of giving her character depth badly rushed at the end, what started out as a fresh, strong and independent character, ends up as dull and indistinguishable.
The claustrophobia of the enclosed maze of the dead is, initially, superbly captured and adds greatly to the unnerving atmosphere. Whilst the direct closeness of the go-pro cams is effective, it becomes too familiar incredibly quickly. With the central aspect of the film’s fear factor so reliant on the feeling of claustrophobia, in its absence, the film feels hollow and dull.
Any horror film that attempts to use the fear of confined spaces is, predictably, going to be forced to be put in comparison to infamous claustro-horror, The Descent. If AS,SB wanted to avoid any lines of similarity being drawn, it certainly didn’t do itself any favours by having a near mirrored scene of the lead actress swimming in a pool of blood.
The encompassing theme of past guilt coming back to punish the characters is woven into the narrative with all the finesse of a rhino attempting ballet. Painfully obvious set-ups are littered throughout the film, as characters signpost relevant bits of back story like enormous neon signs in appallingly bad exchanges. It becomes hard to stomach that this very silly film is taking the audience for idiots, too slow to keep up with its ‘brilliantly complex’ plot. Even with this very stretched central idea in place, the film chooses to lazily throw in staples random jump scares, creepy hooded figures and rock monsters, because why the hell not? Relevance and explanation can go and hang so long as there’s something that can pop out and go “Boo!”
As Above, So Below cannot be faulted for attempting to do something surprisingly inventive with the found footage genre. Perhaps, were it played more broadly for laughs, the unlikely bedfellows of horror and exploration adventure might have produced a more enjoyable offspring. With a near absence of scares and a narrative so poorly defined it becomes hilarious, AA,SB is entirely forgetful and completely lacklustre.