It has been 15 years since The Blair Witch Project. That decade and a half has seen the rise of a number of cinematic innovations, from the resurrection of 3-D and the rise of jumbo-size formats in blockbusters to advances in digital technology that have made filmmaking far more accessible to anyone with a story to tell.
And yet, despite all that movement forward, we’re still somehow putting up with found-footage horror movies. It would be impossible to present these flicks as ”real” anymore—when Blair Witch cashed that chit in, that particular rope-a-dope was gone for good. It’s little more than a lazy storytelling crutch, as characters can simply say exactly what they’re thinking and narrate what they see even if the budget doesn’t allow those images to show up on screen.
The reliance on those tired tropes really drags down As Above So Below, a cheapie horror flick from Drew and John Erick Dowdle, who last made the insipid M. Night Shyamalan-presented Devil. The film follows archaeologist Scarlet (Perdita Weeks) on a quest to retrieve the legendary Philosopher’s Stone, a medieval artifact said to be the secret of alchemy. The clues lead her into the catacombs of Paris, a 200-mile system of tunnels that houses the remains of over 6 million people. She drags along friend George (former Mad Men star Ben Feldman), a videographer (Edwin Hodge) to document her search, and a local outlaw catacomb explorer named Papillon (Francois Civil, from TV’s Rosemary’s Baby).
The catacombs are an awesome place to film a horror movie. All the human skulls, claustrophobic passages, and general darkness create plenty of unsettling spookiness even before things start to go bump in the night. In fact, the first part of As Above recalls the unnerving underground discomfort of The Descent, another caves-are-terrifying thriller. But once As Above devolves into supernatural nonsense, the narrative wheels fall off. The stakes begin as gut-wrenchingly real with the team feeling disoriented hundreds of feet beneath the streets, but the film gets downright silly once the caverns become malevolently sentient.
And of course, any half-interesting ideas are undermined by the fact that most of the final act is invisible thanks to a dropped camera and the dying batteries of the cast’s headlamps. As Above has some genuine scares (though nothing as unnerving as when Feldman’s Mad Men character cut off his own nipple). But like other movies of its ilk, it’s missing a very simple bit of next-level Hollywood technology: a tripod. C