Archaeologist Scarlet Marlowe is obsessed with finding the famous Philosopher’s Stone and, after her search takes her to Iran, she finally believes she has found its resting place in a secret chamber in the Catacombs of Paris. Hiring a team of urban explorers who frequent the underground caverns and know their way around, Scarlet and her team head below the surface to find the elusive stone. However, once they venture into areas of the caverns that tourists are forbidden to enter, they soon become lost and come to the stark realisation that they are not alone down there.
The found footage sub-genre sees no sign of slowing down with the latest offering, As Above, So Below. I’ve never been the biggest fan of these films, save for some truly exceptional efforts like Spanish zombie flick [REC]. However the lure of As Above, So Below wasn’t so much the genre but the setting. I was about to set off to go to Paris for the first time in February and was booked in to take a trip down to the Catacombs when this came along and I (foolishly) decided it would be a good idea to watch first before I went down.
For those of you unfamiliar with the Catacombes de Paris, they are a vast underground labyrinth of caverns and tunnels which hold the remains of around six million people dating back to the 18th Century. These people aren’t just buried here in coffins – their skulls and bones line the passages like some macabre artist has been working for centuries. The tunnels stretch for miles and miles and much of it is out of bounds to the public due to the danger of collapse. However there is a large section of the catacombs which are open to the public. Having nervously set foot in the catacombs myself in 2015, I can assure you that they are not a place you would want to get trapped in. Between the limestone roof leaking water and showing obvious signs of cracks, to lots of fenced-off ‘no-go’ areas, there is also the matter of millions of skulls and bones stacked and assorted in all manner of shapes and patterns. It’s claustrophobic beyond belief and there is a truly unnerving, eerie silence down there. The artificial lighting set up for tourists soaks the remains in a ghostly glow, almost giving the skulls a strange smile as you walk past. You won’t experience anything like it in the world. Such a place is straight out of a nightmare and if this didn’t actually exist, you’d think that it was some far-fetched version of Hell that a Gothic writer had dreamt up.
It’s the perfect place to set a horror film and for the most part, As Above, So Below does a great job of utilising the location to perfection – the film was shot in the real catacombs for the most part, with some set pieces necessitating the use of sets for safety reasons. The film plays upon the fear of collapse, being stranded below the surface in a remote, unhospitable location and unable to find a way out just like Neil Marshall expertly did in The Descent many years ago. The use of the Go-Pro cams really adds to the claustrophobia as we share the characters tortuous decisions on whether to crawl through tunnels barely wide enough to breathe. You’ll be holding your breath along with the characters during some of these scenes. What adds to the realism is knowing that the real camera crew would never have been able to film in such tight spaces and so the Go-Pro cams become essential. The silence that fills these tombs is eerie and unforgiving – you could scream in there until you had no vocal chords left and no one would hear you.
Like The Descent, the film manages to get your heart racing long before anything untoward actually happens to the characters. Having suffered the ordeal of being trapped underground with them, you’re already to chill out but that’s when the strange things begin to happen and the characters realise they’re not alone. But this is where the film quickly unravels. The clichés of the found footage sub-genre come thick and fast: ‘blink and you’ll miss them’ sightings of weird things in the corner of the frame, characters talking directly into the camera, obligatory green ‘night vision’ shots, death of the cameraman (come on – it always happens, it has to happen for the footage to be ‘found’ by someone else) and so forth.
Not only does the film suffer from these clichés but it then sets itself out into some video game-like puzzle solving quest where the characters must solve the next riddle or find the next secret passage in order to progress into the next section. UK readers will be familiar with Channel 4 gameshow The Crystal Maze and this feels like a big budget version of that during the second half of the film. Think of a horror version of Indiana Jones when he’s exploring all of his ancient archaeological sites.
The problem is that the script, with all of its allusions to Hell and the Satanic theme that shines constantly through, can only go one place after the build-up as it writes itself into a corner. The finale is wholly anticlimactic and happens far too fast especially given how slow and methodical the build-up had been. Once the original terror of being trapped underground had been established, the levels of fear don’t really go much higher despite the explorers finding all manner of weird and wonderful (and deadly) things down there. Suspense and tension could have been ramped up far more and the finale stretched out more to give the film a much needed release. But hey, I’m not a filmmaker, so what do I know? Actually the one thing I do know is that I like Perdita Weeks very much. As some sort of nerdier version of Lara Croft, Weeks looks pretty, comes off as quite a nice person and has a reasonable range of skills so I would expect big things in the coming years.
The excellent set-up and amazing location fill the screen with the promise that As Above, So Below will end up being a standout horror film. Sadly, this is not the case as the film hurtles through the usual found footage clichés with aplomb. It’s deliberately paced, has a lot of suggestion in there rather than visuals and can be annoying at times but you could do a lot worse in this sub-genre.