Up until now, Legendary Pictures has been a production company exclusively associated with high concept, big budget popcorn fare (they've been responsible for everything from Christopher Nolan's Batman movies to "Pacific Rim"), but with the success of "Paranormal Activity," and similarly low-cost genre material, the studio is branching out by going small. This week's "As Above, So Below," a grainy, archeology-themed found footage movie that uneasily mixes "Raiders of the Lost Ark" with "Flatliners," is the first effort under this new initiative. While the movie certainly has its share of thrills, it's clear that it lacks that zeitgeist-capturing magic that the best low-budget horror films offer. If Legendary is looking for a potential franchise, they might have to dig elsewhere.
Even with its ridiculously pretentious title, "As Above, So Below" has the most basic of genre set-ups: a team of archeologists and urban explorers, led by a comely over-achiever named Scarlett Marlowe (played, with considerable pluck, by Welsh actress Perdita Weeks), descend into the catacombs underneath modern-day Paris in search of the Philosopher's stone, a supposedly magical object capable of turning base metals into gold. (In pop culture lore most will remember it as being heavily featured in the first "Harry Potter" book/movie.) Once they get underneath the ground, though, things predictably turn spooky, and the group fights for survival as time, battery power and air run very, very low.
As far as horror movie premises go, that's a decent one, even if it is heavily referential, giving shout outs to everything from Neil Marshall's masterful subterranean chiller "The Descent" to the aforementioned "Flatliners," and a whole bunch of movies in between (the opening awkwardly apes "The Da Vinci Code," among others). For about an hour in the middle of "As Above, So Below's" run time, things are genuinely tense, particularly in a moment when the team's de facto cameraman Benji (Edwin Hodge) gets stuck in a passageway filled, almost to the ceiling, with human bones. The camera lingers on the character for several minutes, watching him go from trying to get through, to understanding that it won't be possible, to out-and-out panic and nearly debilitating fear. The fact that the camera captures it all so unblinkingly only adds to the feeling of claustrophobia; he can't get out and you, as a viewer, cannot look away.
The movie loses its footing, though, when, as the characters venture deeper underground, through more and more sinister-looking locations, the physical terror is replaced by more supernatural scares. On the surface, the idea that whatever the explorers take into the caves will be used against them, is a good one, and offers a number of intriguing thematic and character-driven opportunities for horror. But they're saddled with such cliché-riddled back stories that their mini-tragedies, when manifested in these inky caverns, don't elicit a shriek so much as a shrug. Also, since the movie is in the damnably constraining found footage format, it means that we never get to know much about the characters besides the fact that they're all young and cute and willing to travel into dusty caves.
For their part, the cast tries their best to do something with their minimal roles. Weeks is a standout as a young woman possessing "two PhDs and a masters" but still willing to admit when she's wrong. More than that, she's a woman of science, who, when pressed into action, doesn't falter. She's haunted by the memory of her father, whose similar quest led to madness, but that never slows her down, even when these memories begin to appear spookily underground. Ben Feldman, from "Mad Men," also seems to be enjoying the more rudimentary requirements of playing the dude who is dragged into the adventure unwillingly (maybe he can't resist the way that Weeks wears oversized cable knit sweaters that slide seductively off of her shoulders). Francois Civil is an unalloyed joy as the scummy Parisian tour guide who is, of course, only in after being told there will be some kind of treasure. It should also be noted that Civil's performance is the only glimmer of humor in the entire movie; even when things get profoundly ludicrous, "As Above, So Below" keeps a sternly straight face.
It's just a shame that the filmmakers, brothers John Erick Dowdle and Drew Dowdle, who were last responsible for the sort-of-underrated Satan-in-an-elevator yarn "Devil," had to fall back on so many hoary tropes in the third act. The duo can definitely establish mood and atmosphere in brief, effective bursts, and the initial descent into the catacombs is full of creepy texture (an eerie telephone rings in the distance, a backpacker offers a helpful suggestion and then disappears, a group of cultish women sing something that sounds like it came off the soundtrack to "2001: A Space Odyssey"). But it's almost like they too find themselves driven into an inescapable tunnel, and instead of inventively trying to come up with a way to escape, they stumble backwards, stockpiling the derivative images (ghostly figure in a hooded robe alert!) and letting character motivation and thematic resonance fall by the wayside. This is even more disappointing when there are so many possibilities for reality-based terror along the way—running out of battery for your flashlight, becoming dehydrated and severe disorientation seem like pretty good foundations for suspenseful set pieces and nerve-jangling terror. But instead the appearance of an otherworldly Volkswagen seems preferred.
At one point a character makes the ominous observation that "The only way out is down," and unfortunately the film follows a similar trajectory. If the Dowdle Brothers had invested a little more time in their characters and played around more robustly with the idea that whatever you bring into the caves with you, either psychologically or emotionally, will end up snuffing you out much sooner than a collapsed wall or vaguely defined rock monster, then "As Above, So Below" could have been a minor genre triumph. As it stands, it offers a handful of effective moments and some characters that are fun to watch squirm through muck and bones, but not much more than that, especially when the films spins out of control towards its conclusion. "As Above, So Below" ends up feeling suffocating, but not in the way that it should. [C]