Beneath the streets of Paris lies a vast network of tunnels just waiting to be exploited by an enterprising found-footage film crew. Imagine the excitement of the rolling-boulder opening scene in "Raiders of the Lost Ark" stretched to feature length, then subtract such vital ingredients as John Williams' pulse-elevating score, Douglas Slocombe's visceral cinematography and Harrison Ford's wry charisma, and you get "As Above/ So Below," in which a Lara Croft-like heroine assembles a team of expendable "cataphiles" (as catacomb obsessives call themselves) to locate the Philosopher's Stone.
Returning to the faux-doc format they helped innovate in such pics as "The Poughkeepsie Tapes" and "Quarantine," the Dowdle brothers, John Erick (who directs) and Drew (his fellow producer), are by now experts at creating suspense within narrow confines. Their previous feature, "Devil," took place almost entirely in an elevator, and considering all the challenges that the Paris catacombs would pose a traditional camera team, they've managed to generate some genuine tension without straying too far from the realm of the real.
That means nearly all the thrills come either from things that could actually happen (claustrophobia, cave-ins and encounters with the various weirdos you might expect to meet underground) or directly from the characters (who all have deaths of friends or family members unresolved in their pasts) — the idea being that venturing down certain corridors of the catacombs is a bit like spelunking in one's own subconscious. Here, in a calculated yet nevertheless welcome twist on traditional gender roles, it's a young woman who emerges as the fearless and resourceful leader of the expedition.
British actress Perdita Weeks plays Scarlett, a woman who will stop at nothing to get to the "truth." Fluent in six languages and a black belt in karate, this ready-made heroine probably came preloaded with the Dowdles' screenwriting software, taking over her alchemy-expert dad's search for the Philosopher's Stone after his suicide. Scarlett doesn't have many distinguishing characteristics beyond that, just a penchant for spouting exposition and a lingering crush on sometime-sidekick George ("Mad Men's" Ben Feldman), whose hobby involves breaking into places and fixing old monuments.
Once Scarlett gets going, there's nothing stopping her, whether it's infiltrating booby-trapped caves in Iran or dousing museum treasures with flammable compounds in search of clues, and Elliot Greenberg's jump-cutty editing style keeps the adventure going at roughly the rate of Scarlett's intellect — which makes her wild "Da Vinci Code" ramblings sound more impressive than they actually are.
As the implied dangers start to become real, however, the movie feels as though it's moving too fast, abandoning fallen team members with no time to mourn and plunging forever forward, even when signs — "Abandon hope all ye who enter here" — call for a modicum of caution. Cheating the geography, the Dowdles create the illusion that, as a feral character called "the Mole" (Cosme Castro) puts it, "the only way out is down," despite the fact that they're basically taking us in circles around the same locations.
When Scarlett finally does uncover the solution to the Philosopher's Stone — this legend of alchemy rumored to possess healing powers and the ability to turn ordinary objects into gold — the final reveal is unspeakably corny, suggesting that an hour of therapy might have delivered the same advice. For those hoping to find some truly disturbing secrets buried for generations beneath the surface, track down Gary Sherman's 1972 "Death Line" (aka "Raw Meat") instead.
"As Above/So Below" - 2 stars
MPAA rating: R (for bloody violence/terror, and language throughout)
Running time: 1:33
Opened: FridayCopyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun