“AS ABOVE, SO BELOW” (Movie Review)
The Paris Catacombs extend for hundreds of miles beneath the streets of the French city, and they go a long way toward giving AS ABOVE, SO BELOW some distinction in the crowded found-footage field.
The plot cooked up by John Erick Dowdle (who also directed) and Drew Dowdle, old hands at this sort of thing from QUARANTINE and THE POUGHKEEPSIE TAPES, harks all the way back to THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT (the granddaddy of this genre, even though it’s only 15 years old): A camera-armed team find that entering into mysterious territory is a lot easier than getting out. Rather than a witch, the AS ABOVE group is after something with even greater powers: the Philosopher’s Stone, an artifact whose influence is so fearsome it forced a change in the U.S. title of the first Harry Potter movie. Leading the way is Scarlet (Perdita Weeks), a sort of female Indiana Jones who’s first seen crashing a crypt in the Middle East, dodging gunfire and explosions. After a jaunt in wartorn territory, a trip beneath the City of Lights ought to be a cakewalk, right?
Just to be on the safe side, Scarlet, her fellow archaeologist George (Ben Feldman) and cameraman Benji (THE PURGE’s Edwin Hodge) recruit a trio of “cataphiles” led by Papillon (Francois Civil), who have experience descending into the Catacombs, where the remains of six million people lie and in some cases festoon the walls. Scarlet believes that the Stone can be found in a heretofore unexplored and unmapped chamber, which means they have to venture into areas of the caverns where tourists are forbidden to enter. You can pretty much guess what happens next: They get lost, find that their maps are no help, start inexplicably doubling back on their path and start to discover they’re not alone in this hostile environment.
What makes the scenario still work in this case is the environment itself. This is not the first time the Catacombs have appeared on screen, but no previous filmmakers have exploited the location to the extent and impact the Dowdles have. The endless series of claustrophobic rooms and passageways, augmented by a few spaces that had to have been sets but blend seamlessly with the real thing, is a genuinely freaky place to get trapped in, and there’s an extra sense of reality granted the group’s plight by the simple thought that there’s no way a film crew could fit in there alongside the actors. The modern, miniaturized technology means the cameras can get right into the most confined spaces with the characters, whose terror, at a few moments, seems to be (and reportedly was) real.
Like THE DESCENT, this is a movie in which the oppressive locale on its own gets your pulse going even before the supernatural element introduces itself—though unlike THE DESCENT, it doesn’t jump to a new level of fright once it has. There are a couple of nicely weird moments involving objects showing up where they shouldn’t down in the depths, but also the usual run of freaky kids, scary guys in robes and hoods and dead folks from the protagonists’ pasts. Yep, this is another film in which the crux of the horror is prior “sins” coming back to haunt people in the present, and you have to marvel at the coincidence of each one of the spelunkers having some sort of terrible tragedy in his or her history. To their credit, at least, the Dowdles don’t belabor the establishing or revelation of these backstories; the exposition is dealt with swiftly so the film can move on to the next chamber of doom.
Playing the Indiana Jane on what may be her last crusade, Weeks is convincing as a woman who has both multiple Ph.Ds and a black belt in krav maga, who knows what household items can be used to reveal hidden inscriptions on the back of stone tablets and can also translate hieroglyphics under extreme pressure. Her fellow travelers into the Catacombs aren’t nearly as distinguished as characters, but that’s not a dealbreaker, because the real point of AS ABOVE, SO BELOW is to make the audience feel like they themselves are down there among the rocks and bones, panicking as escape seems to be impossible. If the movie doesn’t build to the overwhelming sense of terror one might hope, I do have to admit to feeling a sense of relief once I was safely out in the relative expanse of the theater lobby.