Dear horror movies, ENOUGH WITH THE GODDAMN SHAKY-CAM! I understand that it helps you get made on a budget – as well as getting around those pesky things like proper lighting and direction – but if I have to sit through one more herky-jerky headache-inducer that mistakes physical nausea for scares, I’m going to… well okay, I already vomited, but I’m going to be very disappointed. The Blair Witch Project (still the most overrated horror movie of all time) has a lot of answer for, and with As Above So Below the cheap little precedent it set remains alive and well.
The film has additional problems as well, with good ideas knocking against each other like billiard balls in a vain attempt to gel. But it’s not without merits and a less derivative format might have helped its better elements shine brighter. The initial concept isn’t bad: basically an Indiana Jones adventure reimagined as found footage horror. It’s further bolstered by a plucky heroine (Perdita Weeks) who defies a lot of preconceived notions about women in genre pictures. She’s on the trail of the famed Philosopher’s Stone, and after a harrowing near-miss in Iran has come to believe that it lies somewhere in the Paris Catacombs. Recruiting a reluctant former colleague (Ben Feldmen), a handy cameraman (Edwin Hodge) and a bevy of savvy locals, she hops past all those pesky “Do Not Enter” ropes that keeps the tourists in line and heads down into depths that probably would be better off unexplored.
It makes for an intriguing set-up and the script delivers various puzzles and riddles on their quest that don’t completely insult the intelligence. The problem comes when the film tries to mix that slightly dark exploration mystery with the needs of hard-core horror. Director John Erick Dowdle has the beginnings of some interesting ideas – gateways to hell, secret cultists, the possibility that the party is just going mad down there – and while they’re hardly the most original notions in the world, they still carry some heft, especially within the confines a unique (and apparently shot-on-location) setting. Sadly, As Above So Below doesn’t have the first idea what to do with them, beyond a few predictable gotcha shots and a creepy atmosphere all but ruined by the found footage format.
Things get worse when we move back to the reason they’re all down there. The Philosopher’s Stone represents an interesting Macguffin, but once the concept is introduced, it presents a lot of thorny issues that the screenplay can’t get around. If the stone can truly perform magic, then a lot of the threats and dangers disappear, which doesn’t leave much of a movie. The film tries to eel past questions like that, but they pop up again and again until we finally throw up our hands in surrender.
The horror elements do even worse. Dowdle wants us to question the line between madness and sanity as he throws the various boogeymen at us. Are they really there, or just the in heroes’ heads? More interestingly, does it matter? We touch on the delicious possibilities there just enough to know that they exist, then watch them drown beneath poor development and hackneyed technique. A few unsettling moments arrive almost by default (closed spaces are scary), then disappear as quickly as they arrive.
We’re left with scraps of lost chances and a few interesting notions that can’t connect to the audience at all. As Above So Below ultimately wastes its better elements with an inconsistent approach, unable to determine exactly what it wants to say and how to say it. It clearly wanted to stand out from the pack, and at times it does. But its overall timidity doesn’t do it any favors, and it gives up on too many of its concepts to create a satisfying experience. We don’t ask for much from horror movies, especially on Labor Day Weekend. As Above So Below fails on those levels, but it fails on higher ones too: unable to live up to the better flick it could have been.