“AS ABOVE, SO BELOW” // CAST GIVES IT THEIR BEST SHOT, BUT…

“Quarantine” director John Erick Dowdle conjures up plenty of spooky atmosphere but delivers only a paucity of thrills in his half-baked, found-footage chiller “As Above, So Below” about a group of cataphiles who plunge into the catacombs of Paris to exhume a Medieval relic known as the Philosopher’s Stone. Initially, this low-budget but polished looking thriller must have appeared promising on paper: a plucky Laura Croft heroine, who knows six languages and holds a black belt in Capoeira, persuades a motley crew to crawl through the claustrophobic confines of the dead for a treasure worthy of an Indiana Jones escapade.
Unfortunately, Dowdle and his co-scenarist brother Drew Dowdle don’t stock their storyline with a sufficient number of screams. Once the novelty value of the catacombs as an eerie setting wears off, the brothers Dowdle resort to standard-issue shenanigans that generate no white-knuckled terror. Naturally, claustrophobia takes a toll on our heroes. Each ends up hallucinating about a tragic event from the past, and some find themselves in circumstances best described as surreal. Not only does one spelunker see a younger brother who he couldn’t save from drowning, but also he finds a mysterious piano that reminds him of one from his youth that needed a tune-up.
Simply said, “As Above, So Below” won’t scare the catacombs out of you. Nevertheless, Dowdle does a good job of setting up suspense, but few of his alarming antics will send you screaming for the exits. Sure, you may feel a shiver scuttle up your spine, but you won’t cut loose with blood-curdling screams unless you’ve never seen a horror movie. The blood and gore content isn’t nearly as gruesome as it could have been for an R-rated chiller. The attractive twentysomething cast gives it their best shot, but the outcome seems fairly anti-climactic.
Although she has multiple doctorates, Scarlett Marlowe (Perdita Weeks of “Hamlet”) qualifies more as a tomb raider. She is the kind of girl who doesn’t squeal at the sight of rats and spiders. In a suspenseful opening sequence, she enters Iran disguised as a native to obtain pictures of a giant stone bull that serves as a Rosetta Stone of sorts to interpret alchemic inscriptions prominently featured in the work of her late father. Basically, Scarlett is pursuing the same research that her father embarked on before he felt suicide was the best hope for his unhinged mind. He had devoted his entire life to the search for the fabled Philosopher’s Stone. According to legend, this extraordinary stone could heal wounds as well as convert base metals into gold. Scarlett narrowly avoids death in Iran when the authorities blow up the tunnels where she is snapping pictures of those exotic inscriptions. Later, Scarlett convinces one of her former boyfriends, George (“Mad Men’s” Ben Feldman), who has just repaired an ancient cathedral church bell that hasn’t tolled for 200 years, to accompany her on her elusive quest.
Actually, Scarlett needs George because he knows a language that she doesn’t. Moreover, George can get her into a museum during after-hours that houses an obscure artifact about medieval-era Parisian Nicolas Flamel who figures prominently in her research. What Scarlett learns from that museum piece that she desecrates without a qualm confirms our Tomb Raider mistress’s suspicions.
At first, an incredulous George refuses to follow Scarlett into the bowels of Paris in what amounts to a hair-raising colonoscopy. Since credibility is essential to her outlandish venture, Scarlett invites Benji (Edwin Hodge of “Red Dawn”) to record her historic expedition. After she arrives in Paris, Scarlett enlists three quirky guides, a charismatic graffiti artist named Papillon (Francois Civil of “Molière”), his girlfriend Souxie (newcomer Marion Lambert), and a professional climber Zed (Ali Marhyar of “Zero Dark Thirty”), to not only get them into the forbidden catacombs but also keep them from getting lost. It should come as no surprise that Papillion succeeds splendidly in the first respect but fails miserably in the second. While Benji carries the camera, he has designed headbands equipped with micro-cams for the team to photograph everything from a variety of perspectives. This clever gimmick enables director John Erick Dowdle to show us various points-of-view from the participants so as to heighten the conflict. Obviously, if you suffer from claustrophobia, watching this marginally entertaining chiller may prove to be a genuine challenge. Furthermore, French lenser Léo Hinstin’s epileptic, hand-held camera work may have you scrambling for Dramamine.
“As Above, So Below” is about as close as anybody will want to come to prowling the labyrinth of Parisian catacombs that contain the remains of some six million skeletons. As it turns out, Scarlett and her scavengers aren’t the only intruders lurking in those passageways. Women wearing too much mascara and not enough apparel stand around and chant; a lanky dude long rumored dead reappears; a hooded character in a priest’s robe skulks about, and petrified skulls protruding from walls transform into ghastly ghouls with an appetite for blood. None of them are scary enough to raise your hackles. Predictably, the Dowdle brothers stage several cave-ins and send our heroes into smelly drainage canals that connect the catacombs. All of this squirming about seems frightfully compelling as our heroes wriggle from one gritty crevice into another and struggle to decode hieroglyphics about alchemy. Inevitably, they have to contend with deadly booby traps that their predecessors concocted to discourage this kind of quest. Eventually, Scarlett and company stumble onto a doorway with the familiar Dantesque inscription “Abandon hope all ye who enter here.” Anybody who winds up watching this lackluster chiller would do well to remember those sage words. Comparably, “As Above, So Below” isn’t a tenth as terrifying as “The Descent” (2005), a thriller about a group of women trapped in a cave. Instead, “As Above, So Below” stinks as badly as the 2011 underwater cave thriller “Sanctum.”

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