Review: 'As Above So Below' uses Paris catacombs to stage uneven but effective scares
There is a story about the Paris catacombs that I love dearly. In August of 2004, several police officers were exploring a section of the infamous maze of tunnels near the Eiffel Tower when they came across a particular doorway covered in plastic with a sign that said, "No entry."
Inside, the police were momentarily terrified by the sound of attacking guard dogs, but they realized it was a recording. Pushing further into the tunnel, they found a full working cinema, complete with lights, a projector, a bar, a dining area, and seats carved directly into the rocks.
When they went topside to report their find to their superior officers, they were pleased with what they'd found. By the time they got back, though, everything was gone, and all that was left was a note that said, "Do not look for us. Signed, The Society Of The Perforated Mexicans."
Since then, the people behind the incident have been uncovered and interviewed and the mystery has been explained, but just as a story, it's fascinating, and it is small wonder. There's something about the Paris catacombs that seems impossible, like it's something out of a story that can't possibly be real. Yet it is indeed an actual place, and for a good chunk of its running time, "As Above, So Below" takes full advantage of the inherent creep factor of the catacombs as a location, and does so with a fair amount of skill.
I like the work of John and Drew Dowdle quite a bit. They first hit my radar with a nasty bit of business called "The Poughkeepsie Tapes," and there are at least two moments from that film that I can't shake, which is about two more than most horror films manage these days. As remakes go, "Quarantine" seems to me to be the best case scenario, a strong, clean, genuinely creepy riff on "[REC]". And their movie "Devil" deserved better than it got, hobbled by a knee-jerk reaction people had to M. Night Shyamalan's name in the trailer.
Here's the part of the review where I grouse about the found-footage framework of the movie. In the film, Scarlett (Perdita Weeks) has spent much of her adult life in pursuit of the Philosopher's Stone. The film's mythology is a mash-up of things that will be familiar to fans of Harry Potter or Indiana Jones, and Scarlett is getting close. The film opens in Iran, where she discovers a key to translating a particular ancient text that will supposedly direct her to the hiding place of the Stone. She's got her cameraman Benji (Edwin Hodge) with her, documenting anything, and once she puts together a team to head into the Paris underground with her, they all end up armed with GoPro gear on their headbands. This gives us plenty of verisimilitude in terms of what gets shot and how, and all of that is fine. But I would just as happily have watched the version of this film where there is no Benji, there is no documentary, and we're simply watching a movie. There's nothing gained by the use of the framework, which seems to me at this point to be the question when considering films made like this. Hodge is good in the film, and one of my favorite scenes is just a long sustained close-up of him trying to get through a very narrow passage filled with human bones.
In general, the best material in the film is just the detailed business of navigating the catacombs and getting lost and trying new tunnels. I'm not sure how much of the film was shot in the real tunnels and how much was on a set, but it's seamless, and it is genuinely claustrophobic at times. George (Ben Feldman, most familiar as Ginsberg on "Mad Men") is Scarlett's translator, and he ends up underground by mistake and circumstance, freaking out from the start because his little brother drowned in a cave. His panic is a constant counterpoint to the self-assurance of Papillon (Francois Civil), Souxie (Marion Lambert), and Zed (Ali Marhyar, who has the funniest scared-shitless face in a horror movie this year), and honestly, for about 2/3 of the film, they get a lot of mileage out of the simple act of exploration.
There comes a point where the film makes a decided shift to the supernatural, and it will divide audiences. There's something intriguing about the way the film's visual style eventually breaks down into a sort of surreal blitz, and I think the entire movie is technically accomplished. The sound design in particular is very playful and works as an assault, and great horror depends on an effective soundscape.
The cast is solid. Perdita Weeks is all kinds of pretty, which seems like an important casting consideration when 99% of the film is her speaking directly into the camera, and she seems game for anything the Dowdles throw at her. Feldman has an easy sense of humor that helps the Dowdles modulate the tension throughout the film. In general, everyone's good in their roles, although they largely never move past types. It's an appealing cast, and watching them go, one by one, is moderately effective. The thing that never happened for me with the film, though, was the buy-in. I think the device actually distanced me from the characters and the situation instead of drawing me in.
For sheer craftsmanship, "As Above, So Below" is the type of horror film you should see theatrically. It's really well-made, even if it ends up feeling a little familiar by the end.
"As Above, So Below" is in theaters now.