Journey to the Gates of Hell: "As Above, So Below" an above-average notch on the found-footage belt

As Above, So Below (2014)
93 min., rated R.

Apparently during this never-ending found-footage horror boom, the world can never have enough entries. The "you-are-there," "look-ma-no-tripod" format is one way to shoot a horror movie on the cheap and cut corners when it comes to special effects, and it can feel necessary and make for a real, immediate and scary experience, even if the trickery might be so five minutes ago. A popular knee-jerk reaction would be that one more of these is just another notch on the phoned-in belt, but one needs to understand that any recent entry in an overworked, overexposed sub-genre can flourish as a case of something done well rather than something completely new. A horror-adventure set in the catacombs beneath the Parisian streets, serving as the final resting place for nearly six million souls, "As Above, So Below" actually lends itself to the hand-held, shaky-cam aesthetic. Working in this film's favor is writer-director John Erick Dowdle (2010's "Devil") and screenwriter Drew Dowdle (2008's "Quarantine")making their name as The Dowdle Brothers—and their slow-burn craft of allowing the scares to come to those who wait. No doubt, that approach will frustrate those who just came to see the catacombs become a killing floor, but in the post-"The Blair Witch Project"/"Paranormal Activity"/"[REC]" sweepstakes, "As Above, So Below" is above-average when it comes to producing chills.

Adventurous London professor Scarlett Marlowe (Perida Weeks), with a list of degrees in archaeology, alchemy and history that would envy Indiana Jones, wants to continue her late father's work. With a key she discovers in an Iranian cave, she hopes to find the legendary Philosopher's Stone, founded by 14th century French alchemist Nicholas Flamel. But first, Scarlett will need to put a team together even after enlisting documentary cameraman Benji (Edwin Hodge) and clock-fixing colleague George (Ben Feldman), with whom she got thrown into a Turkish jail, to be her Aramaic translator. They find a tour guide in Papillon (François Civil) and his fellow travelers, Souxie (Marion Lambert) and Zed (Ali Marhyar), who have been in the tunnels before. Once the team makes their descent to find the stone, their only chance to escape the dark, tightly enclosed corridors will be to keep going down, even after the inscription above a rock opening warns, "Abandon all hope, ye who enters here."

"Location, location, location" is right. It's a blessing that the Dowdle brothers were granted permission by the French government to shoot on-location in the Catacombs of Paris for "As Above, So Below," which could have been pitched as "The Descent" through a digital camera. On numerous occasions, the film vicariously taps into the claustrophobia and jittery panic the characters experience with disquieting expertise, the filmmakers' handling of dread in evidence again after "Quarantine." A building sense of doom and thickening of tension luckily take precedence over pop-up scares, though even those can be earned with sneaky, seat-pouncing success. There's the seriously creepy use of diegetic chanting from a cult of nightgown-wearing women; a harrowing sequence in which one panicky character becomes stuck while climbing over bones through a tight passageway and starts to hyperventilate; and a "water log" moment that stirs up grieving memories of George's brother who drowned.

The living, talking bodies in "As Above, So Below" aren't all ninnies who get what's coming to them, but whereas Perdita Weeks makes for an engaging, resourceful female lead as Scarlett, the rest of the lot is mostly fodder for the evil catacombs. "We should keep moving," is uttered once too many, even after the group encounters some supernatural shenanigans (e.g. a child spirit, a ringing rotary phone, a same exact piano from someone's childhood), and one character's trauma with a burning car might have registered more effectively if it weren't so barely mentioned. As these characters' fight-or-flight responses kick in and they feel trapped 220 feet below the ground, the viewer, too, feels trapped 220 feet below the ground. The camerawork will naturally induce queasiness here and there, and only Scarlett and her crew's headlamps and the candles from a treasure trove of gold serve as the film's primary light sources. By the end, everyone will be happy to see sunlight.

Ultimately, watching this nicely nasty surprise through splayed fingers and being scrunched up in a ball is the proof in the pudding. Of course, it isn't without the clunky last-minute apologies between characters and a few instances of strobe-light editing. An unnecessary composed score also butts in, only for the artificial seams in the found-footage illusion to break through, but this only happens a few times. Making up for those quibbles is an anxiety-inducing, visually infernal finale that plays like a swift, rattling ride through hell and back, and it's always good when a horror film dealing with the unknown understands that the mysteries are always creepier than the answers. Will "As Above, So Below" be worshipped for pioneering unseen territory? Hell, no. A decently freaky genre effort shot in the perfect location? Heavens, yes.

Grade: B -