Genre: Horror, Thriller
Directed by: John Erick Dowdle
Starring: Perdita Weeks, Ben Feldman, Edwin Hodge, Francois Civil
The key to a good horror lies in its simplicity or its subtlety. It’s ability to form an atmosphere of mounting dread that slowly creeps over you before consuming you whole, and to not distract you with frustratingly dense convolution. As it is almost immediately made clear, such philosophy has never crossed the path of the Dowdle brothers, whose attempt to instil the manifesting terror of the Parisian Catacombs on the big screen only really works well when treated as a mindless farce.
Adhering by the now apparent genre staple of employing the found-footage format, our story is seen primarily through the eyes of urban archaeologist Scarlett, who is determined to uncover the mythical Philosopher’s Stone, because apparently Harry Potter and Dumbledore have misplaced it. Having found the Rosetta Stone in Iran, she is now in Paris where a map shows… oh forget it! Tediously pretentious story cut short, this is a gun-free Lara Croft video game intercut with a substandard retelling of The Descent.
Indeed, throughout the film you can’t help but think that the whole thing would have been far more successful had it stuck to Neil Marshall’s simplistic yet chilling formula. With the walls covered top to bottom by the skulls and bones of those who died hundreds of years before, there’s no escaping the biting chills sent down your spine as you gaze at the walls of the Catacombs.
The idea of a group being stuck down there, with nowhere else to go but down is suffocating in itself, therefore having the reality playing out on the big screen should be invariably toxic. However, the only moment likely to draw any sort of unnerved response from the audience is a sudden moment of claustrophobic panic, played well by Edwin Hodge, that sadly ends all too quickly and takes any sense of terror with it.
For the rest of the time you will likely only find yourself shaking because you’re exhausted from laughing so much. No, this is not a comedy; the humour is entirely unintentional, but perhaps just enough to hold your concentration. Don’t bother trying to follow the ostentatious plot, which eventually finds our conventionally young and handsome group of explorers standing up at the gates of hell and, like Tom Petty, refusing to back down. Instead guffaw at the fact that beyond the entrance, instead of fiery pits bursting with the souls of the damned, lacklustre Lara and her band of witless wonders must face the dreaded perils of a burning Volkswagen, a dusty piano and an orchestral choir.
There are, by count, two well-orchestrated jump scares, but even they will fail to garner a reaction from anyone who has already seen the trailer. This is why die-hard fans of the horror genre will undoubtedly feel short-changed. It’s not that the Dowdle’s script doesn’t try to be scary, but more that it’s not interested in being so. Instead, the seemingly endless barrages of ideas that form their preposterous plot are what they want to focus on.
Character development is thrown out the window, although perhaps that’s not a bad thing considering at one point someone, quite obviously still gifted with the power to inhale and exhale, turns to the camera and asks if he’s still alive. Resolution meanwhile, is waved away with a coda that does nothing but reaffirm to you that, despite the fact you’re almost crying with laughter, this was all meant to be very serious and meaningful.
Of course, it is never either of those things. If you’re in the right frame of mind, it can’t be denied that there’s an almost endless amount of unintentional hilarity to be found within. If you’re hoping for the sort of scares befitting The Empire of the Dead though, you’ll find that as the characters enter the gates of hell, you’ll enter the cinematic equivalent.