"As Above, So Below" Finds Found Footage Doldrums

Faux-documentary style filmmaking was hard to come by before 1999’s “The Blair Witch Project,” a film that kickstarted a genre with a creative and commercial bang. Years would pass before its influence was widely felt, but the genre would go on to find both a name – found footage – and an audience in a big way, scoring billions in box office returns in the process. The genre’s ostensible peak, 2008’s “Cloverfield,” saw bookends of a bevy of horror-centric pictures with varying degrees of efficacy, a wave that’s still being ridden, as evidenced by the existence of “As Above, So Below” – a work of haphazard ideas told feebly, as if whispered onto the screen. The result is something that’s not quite adventure, not quite horror, not quite a movie.

John Erick Dowdle’s film is mercifully short on speaker-rupturing jump scares – one of modern horror’s worst cliches – but it’s short on scares, period. The picture drums up so few reasons to scream and even fewer to validate its treasure-hunting bent that audiences are liable to pull something from all the shoulder shrugging it’s sure to provoke. Half “National Treasure, ” half “The Descent,” but not half as good as either, the pic unearths found footage purgatory with startling accuracy.

Against all odds, Perdita Weeks (“The Invisible Woman”) is inexorably good as the film’s lead, delivering the dullest of expository dialogue with warmth and poise. As Scarlet Marlowe, second-generation treasure hunter, she begins the film in the heart of Iran, determined to further her late father’s legacy. Following a modest pre-title action sequence that appropriately sets the found footage stage, Scarlet finds herself in Paris, seeking the fabled Philosopher Stone – an artifact that purportedly brings treasure and immortality to its possessor.

Upon connecting with friend and Aramaic translator, George (Ben Feldman, “Friday The 13th”), our heroine hires a rag tag crew of Parisian locals to join in her descent into the city’s underground catacombs – the final resting place of six million French nationals. It’s an involving setup, promising plenty of claustrophobic thrills and devilish mind games – both of which come, but are inexplicably minor. The pic’s subterranean, supernatural goings-on are understandably hampered by its micro-budget, but that doesn’t explain the miserable follow-through of some genuinely interesting ideas.

The notion of these twenty-somethings facing their personal demons – their own worst nightmares, literally – far beneath the streets of Paris is a fascinating one, but its execution is random and only, barely effective in the moment. Fleeting glimpses of underexplained ghouls and violent intragroup conflict produces blank cartridges of thrills where there should be live rounds, robbing a promising set-up of all its bite. On paper, the pic’s R-rating is well deserved, but in practice, it’s surprisingly soft. Only the greenest of horror novices are likely to be riled, let alone riveted.

Even so, Weeks’ impeccable screen presence keeps us invested through the screenplay’s ups and (mostly) downs, serving as an unflappable saleswoman for some truly wretched dialogue. It’s her strangely believable performance that saves the film from itself, planting us firmly in its corner, often against our will. If John Erick and Drew Dowdle got nothing else right – a very real possibility – they found themselves a gem of an as-yet unheralded talent. A leading lady that deserves much, much better than “As Above, So Below.”

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★ out of ★★★★★ (Not So Good)

Release Date: August 29, 2014
Studio: Legendary Pictures, Universal Pictures
Director: John Erick Dowdle
Screenwriter: John Erick Dowdle, Drew Dowdle
Starring: Perdita Weeks, Ben Feldman, Edwin Hodge
MPAA Rating: R (for bloody violence/terror, and language throughout)