"The Texas Chain Saw Massacre" of 1974 (remade four times so far, incidentally) probably initiated the idea of the faux documentary as a basis for the horror film. Possibly more influential, if more crudely made, the brilliantly marketed "Blair Witch Project" solidified the concept, inspiring a number of later movies -- the "Paranormal Activity" franchise, for example, now frightens a whole new generation of fans. If the premise of some extraordinary and scary events, often shown through deliberately amateurish technique and faked found footage, seems at least superficially like real life, then those events obviously heighten the level of suspense and terror.
The new movie, "As Above, So Below," looks something like a compendium of previous works in the genre. It borrows much of its manner and matter from an odd combination of pictures -- obviously "The Blair Witch Project," and its imitators, but also a couple of non-horror flicks, "The Da Vinci Code" and "National Treasure." Though again pretending to be a sort of documentary, it often looks as slick as any Hollywood product.
The movie begins with a confused series of events in some Iranian tunnels, where a young female archaeologist explores a forbidden site, an expedition that ends in explosions and destruction. It reopens with the woman, Scarlett (Perdita Weeks), addressing the camera of a documentary filmmaker, Benji (Edwin Hodge), smugly admitting that she has more degrees than a thermometer and knows four spoken languages and two dead ones. She asks an old friend, George (Ben Feldman), to translate an inscription in Aramaic, one of the dead ones she doesn't know, which enables her to embark on the same mission that obsessed her late father, the search for the Philosopher's Stone.
That mythical object, which belongs in the same category as the Holy Grail, possesses transmutational powers, notably able to change lead into gold. Like a real scholar, however, Scarlett seeks not lucre but learning, the truth that will justify her father's supposedly lunatic quest. The Aramaic inscription, coupled with an ancient map, identifies the location of the Stone somewhere in the catacombs beneath the streets of Paris.
Scarlett enlists a crew of Parisian cave explorers familiar with the catacombs, and the gang, along with Benji, all equipped with miniature video cameras, descends into the caverns, proceeding, sometimes on a pavement of human bones, through an endless series of narrow apertures, tunnels, wells, even underwater passages. Along the way they encounter numerous strange phenomena -- evidence of human habitation, a spooky choir, a ringing telephone, a crusted piano that still plays, the preserved corpse of a medieval knight, and a whole new batch of cryptic inscriptions and symbols guiding them toward the Stone.
As in "The Da Vinci Code" and "National Treasure," the crew pauses for readings of all the signs, with learned interpretations by Scarlett and George. Some of the signs lead them astray, so at times they travel in circles, diving into the same waters, clambering up the same rocky slopes, rappelling down the same wells, digging through the same walls, repeating the same moments of shock.
As any pale and trembling veteran of the genre knows full well, nothing good will happen when a group of young people go somewhere they shouldn't, which in "As Above, So Below" means that some of Scarlett's crew will suffer more than others, that worse things than shock await them in the depths of the catacombs. Other dangers demand seemingly superhuman efforts by some of the others, including some foolhardy and, despite the documentary context, quite unbelievable stunts.
Despite the countless frights that Scarlett and her gang confront in this dark journey through the bowels of the City of Light, this literal descent into a Hell right out of Dante, the greatest horror of them all grows out of the path they take. The overpowering constriction of the labyrinth they must negotiate to achieve Scarlett's quest constitutes an acutely and terrifyingly claustrophobic nightmare. Perhaps the scariest moment of all in fact occurs when the chubby Benji, crawling over a river of bones, finds himself stuck, unable to go forward or back, and panics. The picture needs no fake documentary to create that horror -- that's real enough for anyone.