As Above, So Below may not be the first film to go into the catacombs underneath Paris but this version of subterranean terror certainly keeps the audience tensely on the edge of their seats throughout the entire movie experience. The Legendary Pictures and Universal Studios marriage has not delivered the scariest film of the year, however, and their POV type of filming, a la The Blair Witch Project, Cloverfield, et al, was not the filmmakers best idea by a long-shot.
The publicity for this horror/thriller states that this film comes from the same folks who brought Quarantine and Devil to the screen. John Erik Dowdle, who directed and co-wrote the film with his brother Drew, did indeed work on both these previous horror tales. Drew acted as Executive Producer on Devil keeping the films “in the family.”
As mentioned above this is not the first time that the Parisian catacombs, with its millions of skeletons concealed in the underworld beneath the French capital, has been the setting of a horror film. At least once before, 2007 to be exact, the appropriately titled Catacombs also took place in the creepy underground setting. Of course the earlier film, which starred rock singer Pink, who was actually billed as Alecia Moore, was not well received and only has a 4.6 on IMDb.
The film with Pink featured catacombs that had been transformed into a giant rave scene where grunge seeking punk rockers could get down and dirty underground. In this 2014 horror/thriller, the subterranean terror has nothing to do with rock, music, or performers. As Above, So Below is all about alchemy, the philosopher’s stone, mysticism, and hell.
At the beginning of the film, archeologist Scarlett, played by Welsh actress Perdita Weeks (Prowl, Hamlet), is in Iran. She is on her way to a series of caves that are about to be blown up by the current government. A friend of her father’s, who was another more famous archaeologist, smuggles her into the caves to see an Arabic “Key Stone” which she hopes will translate information on a famous alchemist’s grave marker which is said to contain directions to the philosopher’s stone he alone manufactured.
This stone is said to be able to grant the owner riches and eternal youth or life. After Scarlett narrowly escapes being buried under tons of rubble in the exploding mine, the next time the audience see her is in a “documentary.” She is being filmed by Benji, played by Edwin Hodge (The Purge, Red Dawn), at a Parisian “dig” and she is planning on asking an old “flame” George, played by Ben Feldman (Cloverfield, Friday the 13th), to help her translate the Arabic language on the headstone using her “key.”
Despite Scarlett leaving her former lover stranded in a Turkish jail, he agrees to help her search for the stone. After deciphering the clues on the tombstone, they find out that is has to be in the catacombs under Paris. The two, with Benji in tow, approach local “guide” Papillon, played by François Civil (Frank, Elles), who agrees to use his team to take the trio on an urban exploration trip into the catacombs. His, and his team’s payment, will be the treasure said to be buried with the philosopher’s stone.
Once the protagonists enter the catacombs the action picks up steadily, which is not a word which can be used to describe the camera work. Utilizing the same type of handheld jerky filming technique which was the “star” of The Blair Witch Project the action was so violently shaky that it evoked nausea from the viewers more often than terror.
This motion sickness did not, however, keep the film from being painfully claustrophobic at points and downright scary in others. At one point, an audience member at the early screening had to lean forward in his seat and put his head between his knees. This was during a point where things got a “little tight” in the tunnels. On top of the claustrophobia inducing scenes, there were many places where the action made bums leap from seats, or at the very least made audience members toss popcorn in the air.
There was also a good amount of nervous laughter at some of the build up scenes. Whether or not every audience will react this way to the storyline and the fairly impressive “scares” is not known. This whistling past the graveyard behaviour did not spoil the few heart stopping moments as much as the extremely jerky camera work.
The CG in the film was impressive, again in spite of the constantly jerking mini-cam, although it could have been even more impressive if the director had not opted for the POV camera style. It does have to be pointed out that the acting was pretty impressive and the setting, the catacombs, were unsettling and creepy. Ms. Weeks is very good and even when drenched in fake blood looks stunning. Ben Feldman, Edwin Hodge and François Civil all turn in decent performances and really all the players in the little catacomb’s team do very well.
By the end of the film, the audience will feel like Hell has literally broken loose and should agree that As Above, So Below delivers fairly well in the subterranean terror stakes. For those potential viewers who do suffer from motion sickness a dose of dramamine just before entering the cinema might not be a bad idea. As Above, So Below opens August 29 in theaters across the country. Prepare to be nauseated and claustrophobically scared.
By Michael Smith