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‘As Above, So Below’ descends into inept horror

Perdita Weeks in "As Above, So Below"
Perdita Weeks in "As Above, So Below"
Universal Pictures

As Above, So Below

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The new horror movie “As Above, So Below” will make your head hurt. Not only will the spastic camerawork give you a massive headache, but so will the inept storytelling, paper-thin character development, and lack of genuine frights. Movies released in the dog days of summer are usually those barker’s the studios need to dump right before their more prestigious fall releases. This one can’t even be called a dog because it doesn’t hunt on any level.

There’s an interesting idea buried, and I do mean buried, somewhere in this film about archeologists investigating the catacombs of Paris, but director/screenwriter John Erick Dowdle and writing partner Drew Dowdle screw it up almost from the get-go. They bog down the simple narrative with all sorts of hieroglyphic mumbo jumbo. They create an utterly boring female protagonist with exactly one characteristic – drive. And they surround her with characters that don’t go much beyond French guy, black guy and arty girl. It doesn’t even feel like a first draft. It feels like a conversation for a movie idea that occurred while in line at Starbucks.

Once the explorers get in the catacombs, even some detailed production design can’t save things. The locations may be impressive, but the camera work is so atrocious with its constant flitting about, that you never really get to take in the ruins and appreciate all the rubble that’s been created for our viewing pleasure. It feels like filet mignon has been churned through the grinder into hamburger. Production designer Louise Mazaroli should sue for defamation of character.

And there’s really no reason for all that flaky-shaky, POV camera work here anyway. The story could have been told a lot more clearly with objective camerawork. Unfortunately, Dowdle didn’t learn from the incomprehensible camera work that marred his movie of “Quarantine” from 2008. I’m sure he studied the superior British horror classic “The Descent” (2005) in preparing for this venture, but it's too bad he didn’t realize that most of that film’s cave camerawork wasn’t frenetic at all, but rather quite deliberate and steady.

The Dowdle’s also want to integrate Satanism, poltergeists, possession and sorcery into their scare fest here, but that gives this an ‘everything but the kitchen sink’ feeling of desperation. “As Above, So Below” borrows liberally from other, better horror franchises like “Nightmare on Elm Street”, “Paranormal Activity”, and “The Mummy” but with none of the appeal of those films. Welsh actress Perdita Weeks (as lead archeologist Scarlett Marlowe) constantly seems to be trying to channel Rachel Weisz, but does so with little of that actress’ charisma or sex appeal.

Then, as if the hodgepodges of themes, the thinness of character, and the nauseating camerawork aren’t irritating enough, the Dowdle’s start turning their characters into complete imbeciles. Each starts to have visions of dead family members, but does anyone stop to talk about what’s going on? No. It could be the devil or the lack of oxygen, but the explorers are only interested in the quickest way out.

In one of the film’s most ridiculous moments, a dusty old phone is discovered ringing off the hook in the middle of nowhere. Scarlett answers it. It’s the voice of her dead dad on the line and he pleads for her help, but she hangs up and shakes it off like it’s a wrong number! She doesn’t discuss it with anyone at that moment and it begs the question of how anyone in the audience can care about these characters when they seem to show no interest in conversation with each other.

Things go from bad to worse as the filmmakers start throwing in mysterious, shrouded figures, illusions that kill people a la Freddy Krueger, and stones that can resurrect the dead until they can’t again, for the convenience of plot. Again, no one talks about the pseudo-Satanists or the fact that one of their own was just sucked into a fiery death in an old Pontiac. This movie would be quite funny, if it weren’t so utterly inane.

There are more hieroglyphics and symbols to deal with too, and Weeks does her damnedest to make each new revelation sound important. I kept hoping for Tom Hanks to show up and put it all into plain English, like in “The Da Vinci Code”, but no such luck here. Instead, everyone runs from one cavern to the next, caterwauling, and looking for a way out of this nightmare.

Universal Studios has a long and illustrious history in horror. They brought us Dracula, Frankenstein, the Wolf Man, the Invisible Man and the Creature from the Black Lagoon. This is not one of their better efforts, and it's doubtful this film will lead to another big franchise for them. And director Dowdle has done better before too, as with the very effective and smart “Devil” he made in 2010. He needs to give up his ‘found footage’ predilection and concentrate on better stories to drive his dramas, not exhausting and gimmicky shooting techniques.

“As Above, So Below” had the spark of an idea that could have had us all gasping for breath in a tight and terrifying setting. Instead, this botch of a movie will lead any true horror aficionado to gasp in horror at its ineptitude. We deserve better, even during the awful last week of the summer movie season.