The tagline for As Above, So Below tells us, “The only way out is down,” but the truth is that the theater lobby provides a quicker exit from this subterranean supernatural sludge. Here we have a shaky-cam spectacle of the vague “found footage” school in which a bunch of D-list actors I’ve never heard of searching for the philosopher’s stone in the Parisian catacombs find the entrance to hell. Now, as I have noted elsewhere, this is utter nonsense. Any horror film fan worthy of the name knows that the entrance to hell is in Brooklyn — a fact established in 1977 by Michael Winner’s The Sentinel — and no attempt to transfer this accolade to Paris is worth considering. Just because someone has scrawled “Abandon hope all ye who enter here” on a cave is hardly convincing — no matter how much incoherent, barely decipherable “boogie boogie boogie” nonsense follows. Case closed.
The movie is from John Erick Dowdle and his co-writer brother, Drew. These boys previously gave us Quarantine (2008) and Devil (2010) (in fairness, the latter was from a story by M. Night Shyamalan). That should be warning enough to stay away from this one — and truth be told, viewers do not seem to be lining up for it. Whether that speaks well for audiences or merely speaks to end-of-summer moviegoing malaise is debatable. I have certainly seen worse movies strike it rich. And the truth is there are isolated — very isolated — moments in the film that are pretty creepy. For that matter, the film is somewhat effective at being uncomfortable — and not just from the nausea-inducing “camerawork.” But this has less to do with the film than with the basic discomfort of claustrophobia. This also raises the question of whether generating discomfort is desirable. We go to horror movies for a variety of reasons — to enter worlds we don’t otherwise get to see, to feel our pulses race in moments of suspense, to jump at shock effects (and then laugh at ourselves for jumping), for a brief frisson at the creepy. But I can’t say I’ve ever had the least desire to see a movie that made me physically uncomfortable. Others may feel differently.
All this nonsense is centered around overachiever archaeologist and martial arts expert (it’s important — honest) Scarlett (Perdita Weeks), who is determined to find the philosopher’s stone. The evidence suggests that the damned thing is in some supersecret part of the catacombs of Paris. (I’m guessing she already checked the wash basin and possibly even the sofa cushions.) So her hapless cameraman (Edwin Hodge, who, being the black guy, is easily freaked out, it seems) and her very recalcitrant semi-ex-boyfriend (Ben Feldman) accompany her and some sketchy French graffiti artists/catacomb experts into the bowels of Paris. Creepy stuff happens — mostly involving barely-glimpsed horrors, loud noises and a soupçon of György Ligeti music. Really, apart from the unusual location, there’s nothing new here, and the movie’s notions of hell are slightly less persuasive than those in January’s Devil’s Due — and that’s saying a lot. I mean, this is a movie where a well-placed kung fu blow will shatter a carnivorous demon. Is that the best hell can do?
In the end As Above, So Below is just another bad horror movie made worse by the worn-out “found footage” ploy, which was never any damn good in the first place. And, of course, the film can’t even stick to the concept. Long before the end, it’s cheating like crazy on the idea, which mostly seems to exist here solely because it “covers up” — or excuses — the incoherent nature of the proceedings. In this regard, the movie is a monument to the school of if-you-can’t-tell-what’s-going-on-it-must-be-exciting-as-hell — one of the most annoying affectations of modern film. Rated R for bloody violence/terror, and language throughout.