As Above, So Below, the latest and (hopefully) greatest “found footage” horror movie to attempt something supposedly “different,” is admittedly scream-worthy at times. France’s catacombs are creepy enough in the daytime as it is, making them an ideal location for first person POV horror, but the scares are all inherent. All the work is done for the Dowdle brothers, showcasing walls lined with human skulls that remind us that every scene takes place in an underground mass grave, but besides a few religiously-inspired jump-scares, little is done to truly capitalize on Paris’ darkest secret. Buried among the bones and bodies is the Dowdle’s own story, only unearthing enough cohesion to stumble from Point A to Point B, but in establishing a wicked game where your deepest fears become the enemy, rules are glossed over in favor of archeological advancement. It’s a shame, because such a fresh concept is wasted on a mixture of Indiana Jones, National Treasure, and every found footage horror movie you’ve ever turned off out of frustration – close, but no cigar.
We follow Scarlett (Perdita Weeks), a student of knowledge looking for a hidden chamber buried deep beneath Paris’ underbelly. Following in her father’s footsteps, she throws caution to the wind and hires a team of local adrenaline junkies to sneak her in the fabled catacombs hidden underneath the prominent French city, knowing what dangers could possibly await. Accompanied by a documentary filmmaker named Benji (Edwin Hodge) and an Aramaic translator named George (Ben Feldman), Scarlett enters areas of the catacombs that no one ever has – but that might be for a reason. Is there something sinister hidden deep beneath the soil? Once the team gets trapped inside after a tunnel collapse, they have no choice but to find out, as the only route of escape seems to be leading them deeper into the maze of corridors.
I want to start out being a bit positive, because the Dowdles are able to create horror that shocks and awes in the moment. Traversing these never-ending tunnel systems provides a puzzle-heavy adventure that harkens back to many “tomb exploration” movies of old, but it’s when the title As Above, So Below takes its meaning that Scarlett’s mission becomes a claustrophobic nightmare. A lot of comparisons can be drawn to my favorite V/H/S segment – Radio Silence’s 10/31/98 – where a haunted house comes alive, sprouting bodily features and paranormal forces. As Above, So Below strikes that same creative assault, because ancient booby traps assuredly don’t present enough of a challenge, but the effects created play like a Temple Run scene from Hell. Scarlett runs, jumps, collects her jewels, and gets a tad bit bloody along the way – but this furious act can’t outweigh my confused boredom throughout.
Atmospherically, when I think of true examples of paralyzing close-quarters horror, The Descent immediately pops into my head. Vicious horror, constant intensity and a choking claustrophobia never loosen their grip – something As Above, So Below lacks. There are moments when characters freak out, thinking they’re stuck in slim passageways, but never did I feel that same compact terror projected on myself. The Descent exploits my fear of dark, cramped spaces, but the Dowdles never achieve the same crippling fear.
As Above, So Below also plots out a story that leaves viewers in a darkness even more restricting than the catacombs themselves, opting for jump-out scares instead of revealing informational context. We get the gist of it, whatever demons that haunt you will also be your demise, but the rules of said scenario seem to bend themselves only to benefit each moment – not a collective whole. Some characters are easily able to avoid their past, running past villains like a brainless NPC baddie in an open-world video game, while others immediately succumb to evil forces that unfairly secure their death. I don’t know, maybe the Devil plays favorites? For a group of characters descending into Hell, there’s sure a lot of mercy shown at times.
What I’ll never get is why movies always find it necessary to attempt romantic drama no matter what the situation – why can’t a bunch of friends and strangers be caught in a life or death scenario? Why do we always need that awkward moment where a character expresses his love or makes a goofy sentiment when survival should be at its height? As Above, So Below falls victim to this same hilarity, as an underdeveloped relationship obviously hinted at comes to a head during a moment of drastic intensity. When done right, yes, emotionality elevates scenes where love may be broken up by a murderous psycho, but when lazily thrown in for a cheap audience croon, these horribly fake moments only remove viewers from otherwise apt chaos.
Then again, most of the cast is rather frustrating besides Benji’s random “AW HELL NAW” moments and Pap’s (François Civil) charming gusto. Unfortunately, Scarlett becomes an adventuring stereotype who never thinks of her group’s safety while blindly leading them deeper into haunted catacombs. Her overzealous nature becomes annoying, like a pompous guide who doesn’t care if you can keep up, reaching a peak when Benji gets stuck and her non-stop chatting steals whatever tension is presented by the cameraman’s increasing paranoia. Ben, of course, becomes the stereotypical love-struck admirer, and the rest are only pawns in Scarlett’s devilish goose chase.
In the end, As Above, So Below plays like a video game titled Laura Christ: Religious Tomb Raider – just with more shaky cam and an even more convoluted storyline. Whenever the Dowdles hit their stride, running ensues and our vision is drastically impaired, falling into a repetitive cycle of so many “found footage” films beforehand. Now, to be fair, a handful of critics I’m friendly with are claiming there’s enough originality discovered in this dusty tomb to appease horror fans, but my opinions are a bit different. Sure, meandering around France’s catacombs is a hoot while Hell slowly takes over, but I can’t forgive a film that makes the same egregious mistakes as so many similar films before it. Swap the catacombs out for any other location, and all you’ve got is another generic “found footage” snoozer – one that finds its footing too little, and certainly too late.
Despite momentary terror that comes at a Temple Run pace, As Above, So Below never differentiates itself from the "found footage" pack despite utilizing such a unique locale.