A good horror movie could be made out of the catacombs beneath Paris, but As Above, So Below is not that movie. It descends into the real underground cemetery where, since 1810 or so, there really are orderly piles of human remains from the 6 million bodies placed there when the burial grounds closer to the surface got too crowded. I can say from first hand experience that it is creepy down there, dark, quiet, and filled with stacks of skulls and femurs of long-dead Parisians. The emergency exit sign is merely a green arrow pointing backwards from whence you came. There’s plenty of real eeriness to be found, so the movie’s intention to add a dusting of supernatural disorientation seems foolproof. But, boy, was I wrong. Director John Erick Dowdle, from a screenplay co-written with his brother Drew, has found a great location and in it stages almost nothing worth caring about.
The threadbare plot involves nothing characters and skimpy scares. It’s a found footage contraption that follows a young urban archeologist (Perdita Weeks) who wants to finish her late father’s search for Nicolas Flamel’s legendary Philosopher’s Stone, the exact same MacGuffin put to good use in the first Harry Potter. Suspecting it is located hundreds of feet below Flamel’s grave, she gets a cameraman (Edwin Hodge), an ex-colleague (Ben Feldman), and a trio of twentysomething French kids (François Civil, Marion Lambert, and Ali Marhyar) who love to explore the tunnels and caves just beyond the catacombs open to the public. We go below the city with the group, wobbling our way down narrow passageways, past tour guides, past thrill seekers, past cultists, until they’re well and truly lost. Along the way, they see weird visions and hear things that shouldn’t be. A phone rings. A baby cries. A piano sits half buried in a wall. Creepy.
It’s unfortunate that the whole scavenger hunt is visually unpleasant, with some of the queasiest shaky cam I’ve ever seen. At least that makes it marginally more believable than usual that the characters themselves are grabbing the shots on the fly. It’s entirely incomprehensible the further it goes. I have no clue what happened most of the time. They go in circles, fall down holes, splash through shallow water, find mildly unsettling befuddlement, and repeat it all over again. What do they find? How do the survivors escape? It’s hard to say. The scarier things get for the characters, the wilder the camerawork. The most effective scene is the most still, a claustrophobic moment with a pile of bones filling half the screen and a wall dominating the other, while a character stuck between them hyperventilates.
At some points, though, what’s appearing on the screen is practically experimental, building what is ostensibly a dumb narrative film out of blurry moving colors, flashing lights, half-glimpsed human figures, sudden jolts, shouts, and sound design that sounds like a cave in at the Foley studio. It is often said that the art of restraint makes for the best horror, when audiences can fill in gaps and summon up the dread of what might be around the next dark corner. And it is true that not seeing something scary or catching only a glimpse can be powerfully unsettling. But here when a character screams, “Did you see that?!”, the only possible answer is, “No.” I was never scared, only slightly nauseated by all the wobbling camerawork.
It’s a totally empty genre exercise that has absolutely nothing going on thematically or in its characterizations. There’s only the faintest glimmer of local color to the Parisian locales and supporting cast. Why bother going to Paris if you’re going to bury it under the ugliest, cheapest filming style? And most of the time, you can’t even tell they’re supposed to be in the catacombs. They’re panicking their way through anonymous dark rooms. Worst of all, it’s just not scary. The blank characters continually descend through a maze of bones and limestone as the movie whips itself into a nonsensical visual mess that fails to connect with the genuine claustrophobic creepiness that actually exists in its chosen location. Unlike Dowdle's minor elevator-set horror fun in Devil, his previous film, As Above, So Below totally squanders its close-quarters potential.