Beneath the busy streets of Paris is one of the world’s most famous boneyards, a network of narrow tunnels littered with the skeletal remains of more than 6 million people. What’s stranger: that this subterranean crypt has become a popular tourist destination, or that more filmmakers haven’t repurposed it as a nightmarish backdrop? As Above, So Below, the latest thriller to pass itself off as the recordings of a documentary crew, isn’t the first horror film to take place in the Parisian catacombs. But it may be the first one to be actually and almost completely shot down there, among the skulls and scurrying rats. The filmmakers claim to have ventured further than any before them, gaining access to areas the public can only have bad dreams about. The claustrophobia, scrawled across the faces of the actors, is catching. And one can almost smell the decay, the musty stench of dried marrow, gusting through this communal resting place.
No movie set and filmed just below the land of the living, in the darkness and foreboding silence of a miles-long tomb, is going to lack for creepy atmosphere. But for all the automatic unease its famous location generates, As Above, So Below turns out to be good for only a few mild shudders. Part of the problem is a mishmash of genres: Not content merely scaring the piss out of its audience, the film also aspires—interestingly but with little success—to a kind of found-footage Indiana Jones vibe. The heroine (Perdita Weeks, quite good at playing to the roving camera) is a plucky archeologist in search of the fabled philosopher’s stone, well known to alchemy nerds and Harry Potter fans alike. This angle leads to some dopey moments, as when someone translates an ancient Aramaic message and discovers that it rhythms… in English. Even after Lara Croft has ventured underground, accompanied by a reluctant sort-of-ex (Ben Feldman, who plays Ginsberg on Mad Men) and some French tour guides, the adventure-serial silliness keeps poking through. The Descent and The Da Vinci Code do not blend easily.
What’s down there, lurking in the shadows of the mausoleum? The characters blissfully ignore the signs of where they’re really headed (hint: it’s south of heaven), and there’s some solid gallows humor in watching them dutifully trudge into danger. (More than once does someone excitedly exclaim, “It’s a way out!” as everyone drops deeper into the darkness.) And director Erick Dowdle, who previously helmed the [REC] remake Quarantine, has a solid handle on the mock-doc format, having learned how to achieve some degree of visual elegance without completely sacrificing the illusion that his movie has been shot by a bunch of terrified amateurs. It’s a pity then that As Above, So Below fails to make good on its potential, the payoff too familiar to inspire any fresh fear. Unnerving signs of trouble—a cursed instrument from one character’s youth, singing zealots performing some godforsaken ritual—give way to the usual running and screaming and dying. What’s the point in shooting a horror movie in the catacombs if it’s just going to end up looking like every horror movie not shot in the catacombs?