The Catacombs of Paris Have More Life in Them Than This Horror Film
Director: JOHN ERICK DOWDLE/2014
John Erick Dowdle, the director behind Quarantine and Devil now brings us a new horror film, called As Above/So Below. Perdita Weeks is Scarlett. She is a very young college professor with multiple Ph.D.’s, the ability to speak 4 spoken languages and 2 dead languages fluently. Traveling deep into Iran, without getting caught, she discovers an ancient relic that her Dad, who was also a professor and an expert in ancient alchemy, had been searching his whole life for. The Aramaic script contained upon it is a clue to something greater.
Back in Paris, Scarlett recruits the help of her old friend George (Ben Feldman-Mad Men) who is able to read Aramaic. The script points them to the possibility of finding the ancient “philosopher’s stone” (also of Harry Potter fame). This stone has the ability to turn any thing to gold rendering the possessor of such a stone unlimited wealth. The man who apparently created it was a master alchemist. He also happens to be buried deep underneath Paris.
Assembling a team that can take them through the forbidden areas of the Parisian catacombs, and ultimately to the hidden layer of this ancient alchemist to recover the philosopher’s stone, Scarlett seeks to discover the object of her father’s obsession. Having hung himself, he was never able to finish his pursuit, but Scarlett, armed with his detailed notes is determined to make good on his life’s quest.
Traveling with her is Benji, a videographer who is making a documentary on her scholarly pursuits. This provides director John Erick Dowdle the opportunity to turn the entire movie into another shaky camera experience where the entire film is through the vantage point of the cameras worn by the team entering the world beneath Paris.
While the shaky camera has been a staple in modern horror films going back to The Blair Witch Project, it really has worn out its welcome. And in As Above/So Below it wears out its welcome from the opening scene. Ideally, it seems like a good idea on paper. Have a shaky cam following a team crawling through tight quarters in the catacombs while surrounded by human bones, rats, etc. to really create a situational fear for the audience. The only problem is that here, in this film, it is in no way scary. We’ve seen all the tricks before.
The idea of the title of the film relates to an alchemist’s phrase the film attempts to explain but simply uses it as a way to turn the underground maze into a topsy-turvy puzzle to wind through. Eventually, they believe these tunnels to lead to the very gates of hell. But this hell is one of their own making where regrets of their past begin showing up to literally haunt them.
The only problem with the premise is that the film never takes time to give us an emotional connection to any of the characters so that their personal demons even matter. In fact, a line of dialogue here and there is about all of the set up we get before BAM! Here is something to jump out and try to scare you in the dark with only a small shaky cam giving the audience quick shots of whatever is jumping out.
No explanation is given as to why this happens, or how some of the terrors are able to suddenly appear. They aren’t necessarily ghosts or demons. They are just things that exist for the purpose of scaring you without any context. How about a weird girl who walks around the underground after having led a weird choir practice there? She shows up to do something once. We never really learn who she is ever or why she cares about this team of explorers. And what happened to all of her weird female choir singers?
Weird objects randomly appear throughout the underground tunnels. Examples include: a piano one character used to play. A ringing telephone. And yet, nobody in the film finds these appearances unusual. They just play the piano and give us the backstory of how it relates to their life. They answer the phone that’s ringing hundreds of feet underground. The backstory they tell is supposed to induce fear in us by giving us the reason the objects are creepily appearing in the scene, but the actors themselves don’t seem scared. They just utter their favorite catchphrase, even when people die: “We have to keep moving forward”. No one has any real connection to each other besides Scarlett and George, and even then its not real developed. And so regardless of what happens on screen that should create the need for lifelong therapy, they just tell everyone to “keep moving forward”. Maybe they’re thinking, “if we just get to the next scene fast enough, no one will worry why none of this makes sense”.
By the time As Above/So Below ends, you’ll wonder why this film was even created. It had no big reveal at the end. No real twist. No real resolution for any of the character’s personal demons other than maybe a flippant emotion or statement to resolve all of these inner pains and anguish we are supposed to believe they carry around inside. The worst part is that, other than some cinematography that created the feeling of claustrophobia at times, there are really no real scares in the entire film. None.
The film is written to set up the creepy vibe with the hope of a payoff, and the music teases us with buildup. Alas, its all just disappointing foreplay that leads no where.
As Above/So Below is a journey to search for an ancient stone near the gates of hell. All we learn by the time the film is over is that hell is located in Paris, and in any theater showing this boring drivel.