Before you see this refreshingly artful exercise in claustrophobic mayhem--the accurately but poorly titled As Above, So Below--brush up on your Nicolas Flamel and alchemy history beforehand. And you may want to take some headache-relief in advance, since the enthusiastic point-of-views and shaky-camera in this mockumentary horror may give you a beaut.
The story is seen through the de rigueur determined camera operator who keeps filming no matter what happens, (Edwin Hodge fills that role as Benji), and his pinhole cameras, worn near the headlamps of archaeological adventurers Scarlett (Perdita Weeks) and George (Ben Feldman) as they dare the Paris Catacombs' unexplored regions. So expect much close proximity blurring and corner of the camera eye terror-flashes, as well as a modicum of incoherence in the audio and the action as per this now overused and unnecessary, but versatile, cost-cutting conceit. (Relatively speaking, of course: but its $5,000,000 budget has grossed $13,000,000 so far.)
I also recommend you ignore Metacritics and Rotten Tomatoes: their movie ratings are irrelevant and off the mark as usual. I don't understand why anyone with a mind of his or her own would even bother with these useless vestigial websites unless the interest is one more of socializing with the herd than reading actual film analysis and earnest reviews. Yes, the usual illogically better-than-to-be-expected cinematography ensues from the use of a limited handheld camera and those micro ones, but this is, after all, a horror movie and you're watching it to be scared. More importantly, keep in mind this is not a found-footage movie. I keep seeing this mentioned in various reviews and it's incorrect. I realized it wasn't found-footage two-thirds into the deepening pile of bones and unexplored passageways our catacomb explorers were getting themselves more deeply lost in. In no credible way would their cameras ever be found to make this a found-footage movie; a realization that adds a little more intrigue and alters expectations for the better.
Scarlett is searching for the Philosopher's Stone and Nicolas Flamel (Harry Potter fans will recognize the name) provides the clues to its whereabouts through his tombstone. Like Mikey in the Goonies and Professor Jones in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, she's determined to let nothing stop her in her life's goal; not the Paris Catacombs and their mounds of skulls and bones, or the potentially pesky rats scurrying through them, or the stifling, endless creepy corridors she's warned to stay out of. Inevitably they are herded into one particular dusty, ancient, chamber foreshadowed by its warning "Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch'intrate" (Abandon all hope, ye who enter here) etched into the narrow entrance. Gulp.
Director John Eric Dowdle (Quarantine) has a knack for enabling goal-driven women in supernatural storylines to reach beyond the typical bosom-bouncing scream queen falderol. Scarlett holds a few PhDs, speaks four languages, and she is so persuasive she even convinces her former boyfriend, George, who's still smarting from when she abandoned him to incarceration in a Turkish prison, to accompany her. George provides important translations and a calming effect to her rambunctious jump-in-then-look approach to tackling challenges. And, gosh, they still do love each other; once they stop yelling at each other.
The hook comes through what each person encounters in the catacombs and what lies farther below: a hint is that personal inner demons feed everyone's encounters with the supernatural; an unexpected upright piano with a dead key and a rotary phone appear, though wildly out of place in such morbid surroundings; the movie's trailer shows a flaming car that spoils a critical moment that's not fully explained (at least not in one viewing); a hooded figure sitting on a wooden throne in the pitch dark suddenly decides to take a walk; the walls come alive and bite hard. More character insight and a little more time to help us pay attention to it should have been added to the script. Traps, copious blood-letting, face-mashing, a long drop with a sudden stop, and all those character-driven bedevilments pop up with the rapidity of a haunt attraction, leaving us and everyone else breathless. Benji, who clearly needs to lose weight before tackling tight places, wedges tight among the bones. As he panics, so do we. Those little squeaky noises at his butt don't help lessen his hyperventilation, or ours for that matter.
It's hard to say if As Above, So Below will boost the Paris Catacombs tourist trade or dampen it, but I hope to see more of Scarlett and George. This may be the start of a beautiful horror franchise.
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