I once had an opportunity to visit the Catacombs of Paris, which stores the remains of about 6 million people, back in 2008. I arrived a few minutes after closing time, however, and the opportunity was lost. I was curious about the place, but I was also secretly glad that I didn’t end up going in. I could feel the creepiness of the place even from the outside on ground level, and given that I don’t love confined spaces, I have concluded that it was probably for the best.
I remember wondering at the time why there haven’t been more horror movies made about the place. Someone must have read my mind, because that’s exactly what As Above, So Below is all about.
If I were constructing the typical premise for a Catacombs movie, it would be about tourists getting lost in there and running into scary things like ghosts or monsters. That’s more or less what I thought As Above, So Below was going to give us. Instead, the film turned out to be more like a treasure hunt movie with elements of a psychological horror and supernatural horror that tries admirably to avoid the most obvious clichés. It ends up being one of those films that’s not exactly good — it does have moments of creepy effectiveness — but it’s at least a little different to what you might have expected.
You get a good feel for how preposterous the film is going to be in its early scenes, when a young scholar (Perdita Weeks) discovers the mythical Rose Key in Iran as part of her goal to track down the Philosopher’s Stone, which can, you know, turn stuff into gold and grant eternal life and so forth. She also happens to be extremely young, attractive, has two PhD’s, and is an expert in martial arts. Totally believable.
Anyway, she travels to Paris, and with the aid of a former lover, translates Da Vinci code-style clues that lead her to the Catacombs. They assemble a local team to guide them in, commencing an adventure that grows more and more bizarre — and terrifying — as they venture deeper into the ground.
While the film explores some of the real-life weirdos that occupy the Catacombs, most of the energy is spent on this fictitious treasure hunt not all that different from those depicted in the National Treasure movies and the Dan Brown adaptations. Actually, it goes even beyond those films, veering into Indiana Jones territory. These parts of the film are not particularly scary, and the way the characters solve the riddles are typically trite. They rattle off various verses no one understands, before realizing they made a mistake, rattling off more versus no one understands to rectify the situation. Stuff like that.
The atmosphere is largely there thanks to the setting, though the film doesn’t really turn into a full-fledged horror until much later. From the point it does, the progression becomes fairly stereotypical, though there are a few effective scare tactics to keep the film afloat for the most part. Credit for not sinking exclusively to “boo” scares and cheap tactics and for coming up with an ending that’s not the same as every other low-quality horror in recent memory, but unfortunately, As Above, So Below is just not consistently frightening enough considering the natural benefits of its premise.
The film is presented as found footage, which I usually hate, but in this instance I can see some merit in taking this route. First person video footage helps in bringing out the macabre atmosphere and claustrophobic nature of the catacombs, giving viewers an idea of just how suffocating and eerie the place really is. Most importantly, The film uses multiple cameras — each of which are attached the heads of the characters — to give us the best view of what is happening. The level of shakiness and incoherence is also kept to a minimum. It may not be realistic, but it’s as good of an approach to found footage I have seen, because it gives us the advantages of the first-person perspective without emphasizing all of the disadvantages.
The end result is an unusual horror film that’s not all horror and not all scary. And yet it is undeniably creepy in moments and semi-interesting because of the premise. I’d therefore say As Above, So Below is above average, below good.
3 stars out of 5