Found-footage movies demand suspension of disbelief. Of course, we know we're not watching real footage of three college students investigating the Blair Witch legend, or a giant monster rampaging through downtown Manhattan. But we put up with the shaky shots and unpleasant angles so we can pretend we are. The format sets a low bar for creativity but a high bar for verisimilitude, because a found-footage film that doesn't feel "found" is nothing more or less than an amateurishly shot B-movie.
That phrase sums up As Above, So Below, a film that wastes a promising found-footage setting on a laughable execution. Not satisfied with making just one amateurishly shot B-movie, cowriter-director John Erick Dowdle (Quarantine, Devil) has jammed several into 93 minutes. It's all too easy to imagine how he and his cowriter brother, Drew, pitched their creation: The Blair Witch Project meets Indiana Jones meets The Da Vinci Code, with a touch of Insidious! In the Paris Catacombs!
If that mashup sounds fun, well, it is — a little bit. The Indiana Jones here is Scarlett Marlowe (Perdita Weeks), a degree-toting, polyglot archaeologist determined to complete her dead father's quest for the fabled Philosopher's Stone. A decoder key found in Iran leads her to Paris, where she hopes to locate the stone buried with medieval alchemist Nicolas Flamel. That involves descending into the very real catacombs — miles of tunnels neatly lined with ancient bones, one of the world's most morbid tourist attractions — in search of a secret chamber.
With Scarlett comes a motley crew of adventurers: the indispensable cameraman (Edwin Hodge), a French graffiti artist (François Civil) with a couple of punkish pals, and a bookish fellow (Ben Feldman) who can translate Aramaic instantly into rhyming, metered English verse.
That's just one of the movie's many unintentional-comedy moments. Another guffaw-inducing bit: Scarlett, who believes in the existence of a stone that can turn lead into gold, dismisses the Frenchman's warning about an "evil" passage as an "urban legend." That line highlights the absurdity of combining found-footage horror conventions (someone always dismisses the paranormal) with a plot better suited to Saturday-afternoon serials. Found-footage uses its pseudo-documentary gimmick to depict the terrifying eruption of the unknown into the ordinary. But in a world where brilliant archaeologists believe in Philosopher's Stones, is anything ordinary?
Of course, that passage does turn out to be evil — so evil that it leads our heroes literally to the gates of hell. People who complain that not enough happens in found-footage movies will have nothing to grouse about on that score: As Above, So Below doesn't lack for stuff happening.
But the Dowdles can't seem to decide whether they're aiming for psychological horror or self-consciously pulpy adventure, so the "stuff" is a weightless mess that, more than anything else, suggests a video game. The design of the underground trek is elaborate and clever, and the director manages to keep us oriented in his spaces despite the erratic camera movement. But the movie is just too busy with its ridiculous plot bric-à-brac to exploit what's inherently unsettling about the subterranean Paris. With perhaps one or two brief bona fide scares, it's a terrible waste of one of the creepiest, most claustrophobia-inducing settings imaginable.
It doesn't help that the characters are among the least likable ever to grace a found-footage flick (and that is a high bar). Weeks does what she can with Scarlett, but the character's obsession is so absurd in the film's ostensibly real setting that she comes off as borderline psychotic.
Perhaps Indiana Jones would, too, if he dragged a hapless cameraman along on his adventures. Some genre bendings are inspired; others aren't meant to happen, and "found-footage pulp" appears to be one of the latter. As Above, So Below is a rare artifact indeed, but it's best to leave this Hollywood crypt undisturbed.
Margot Harrison is the Associate Editor at Seven Days; she coordinates literary and film coverage. In 2005, she won the John D. Donoghue award for arts criticism from the Vermont Press Association.