Amid so many contenders it’s difficult to choose the worst found-footage horror movie since the modern genre was initiated by “The Blair Witch Project” fifteen years ago, but this dreary, incoherent, visually ugly jumble of clichés and inanities would certainly be in the running. Set for the most part in the catacombs that run under the streets of Paris, “As Above, So Below” sinks ever deeper into illogicality and shameless shock tricks as its characters crawl further and further into the subterranean passageways.
The group is led by perky archeologist-linguist Scarlett (Perdita Weeks), an exuberantly athletic type with multiple degrees on her resume and many languages at her disposal who’s continuing work begun by her father. He’d spent years searching for the Philosopher’s Stone, which—according to legend—was the key to realizing the dreams of alchemists to turn base metals into gold (and also possessed extraordinary healing powers). But he eventually committed suicide, and now Scarlett’s determined to prove that he was no crank by finding the artifact.
In a claustrophobic prologue that provides a taste for what will follow in France, Scarlett investigates a cavern in Iran, where she finds a clue to the Stone’s whereabouts in an Aramaic inscription. Returning to Paris, and now followed continuously by videographer Benji (Edwin Hodge), she consults her old buddy George (Ben Feldman), who translates the message for her. (At this point the script shatters credibility at one stroke, since the translation, supposedly made extemporaneously, is in the form of rhymed English doggerel.) The text leads the duo to the gravestone of the world’s greatest alchemist, which in turn contains a secret message pointing to the location of the Stone in an undiscovered crypt in the catacombs which just might lead one to the very gates of hell. Scarlett thereupon enlists a trio of so-called “cataphiles”—virile Papillon (Francois Civil), punk girl Souxie (Marion Lambert) and scrawny Zed (Ali Marhyar)—to accompany her, George and the ever-present Benji into the depths. Benji also equips each member of the group with small head cameras so that what follows can be viewed in typical herky-jerky style from multiple perspectives.
And what occurs is pretty much anything that popped into the heads of brothers John Erick and Drew Dowdle, who wrote the script together, with John Erick directing and Drew also serving as one of the producers. The group has to crawl through mounds of bones that might just be populated by rats. They encounter a weird group of women dressed in flowing robes and with masks over their eyes, chanting some sort of hymns—to Satan, one presumes. And, in a circumstance that’s never really explained, they happen upon items that conjure up their own personal demons—a ringing telephone with Scarlett’s daddy on the line, a hanged man, a dust-covered piano with a missing key that reminds George of his brother’s death, a burning car with a boy inside—not to mention corpses laid out in mausoleum-like rooms and a long-lost cataphile called The Mole (Cosme Castro) who has the propensity to periodically turn into a raving maniac. The sheer randomness of all this leads you to suspect that the kitchen sink might turn up at any moment; that would make about as much sense as what the Dowdles have thrown into their mix.
Then add the crumbling walls and ceilings, which crush a few characters to death along the way (none mourned for long), along with attempts to resuscitate injured ones via that fabulous Stone, and you have a recipe for a cinematic mess, especially since everything is shot by Leo Hinstin in the murky, hyper-kinetic style that’s become de rigueur for these found-footage monstrosities, in which the camera whirls about aimlessly and the screen occasionally goes completely blank so that the “gotcha” sound effects and grumbling score (here by Keefus Ciancia) can take over for awhile. The overall effect is to cause vertigo, and not of the pleasurable Hitchcockian variety.
Acting is a secondary considerable in this sort of helter-skelter mishmash, and neither Weeks nor Feldman, both of whom have done some promising work in the past, are required to do much but rush through their dialogue as quickly as possible, apparently to help disguise the vacuity of what they’re saying. The other cast members are even more functional, types rather than individuals and none of them even vaguely interesting.
To endow itself with a false veneer of erudition, “As Above, So Below” sometimes inserts learned fragments of text into the narrative, as when our intrepid crew encounter a passageway bearing the famous inscription over the gate to Hades: “Abandon all hope, you who enter here” (“Omnes relinquite spes, o vos intrantes”). Considering the punishing awfulness of this movie, Dante’s words have never sounded so apt.