The fear is strong in 2014 when none of the horror outings thus far climb above mediocrity. Besides, Oculus, The Purge: Anarchy, The Quiet Ones, Michael King and Deliver Us from Evil summon more yawns than screams. As for this? It manages to find the “middle ground” called weak gasping.
Lara Croft’s forgotten child Scarlett (Prowl’s Perdita Weeks) loves to dig, prioritizing what she will find over the dangers involved. No surprise then, that a PhD and knowledge of six languages (two of them dead) might get her plus her band of explorers killed down the Catacombs of Paris.
Once Act 1 is out of the way, As Above, So Below’s biggest surprise surfaces: it doesn’t take place in the Catacombs. Had it not for the French elements in Scarlett and company’s underground trek – a couple of bricks painted with “Rue de…”, the accented not-guides-for-Scarlett-but-are-guides-for-viewers and the name Nicholas Flamel – the film’s setting could have been any network of underground tunnels on Earth. Blame the awesome promo materials for overplaying this detail. Then again, it’s impossible to think the party supervising the Catacombs will allow the film’s set pieces to be pulled off within its skull-littered corridors. Make that one more frustrating point to add to the list, besides the fact that once again found footage gets to be the approach to horrify viewers.
That being said, director Dowdle and team nail the claustrophobic atmosphere. Switching between conventional and helmet cams make everything feels tight and suffocating; at one point I did find myself hyperventilating slightly. The uneasiness of the setting is nicely reinforced thanks to our characters’ visions, appearances of unexplained characters like an all-witch choir or those wandering Death Eaters-like creatures, an otherworldly siren and the bizarre layout of the tunnels. Dowdle has the skills to bring the best out of an enclosed setting à la Neil Marshall’s fantastic The Descent. Shame the similarities end there.
As Above, So Below’s scary moments could have been the real deal, but the best they can do is disturb. Sequences aren’t seen in the trailers, i.e. not the piano or burning car, are quite brilliant idea-wise, sadly they are executed in a manner that is either too rushed or accompanied by the accidental turn of the volume knob to 11. It doesn’t help that the characters are unexciting and unrealistic, spewing equally unexciting and unrealistic lines. There is Scarlett’s ex-boyfriend George (Mad Men’s Ben Feldman), let’s say at one point he will confess how much he really loves her. Cameraman Jacob (The Purge’s Edwin Hodge) doesn’t feel safe in a place like this, maybe he should be comforted by Scarlett. The explorer trio Papillon, Zed and Souxie (Frank’s Francois Civil, Zero Dark Thirty’s Ali Marhyar and in her acting debut, respectively) have never been to this part of the tunnels before, by logic they should bicker with Scarlett. Everything has ‘safe’ written all over it undermines whatever newness the premise and plot elements contain. At least Weeks is convincing as a passionate archeologist, constant bossiness and ‘can-we-just-blow-it-off-and-move-on’ attitude aside.
Uncomfortable is definitely the word to describe the position of As Above, So Below in my mind – it runs on ‘interesting’ but doesn’t want to operate there. Either pop in The Descent or, even better, get the first three Indiana Jones films and do a marathon.