As Above, So Below

This was supposed to be a post breaking down the entire Paranormal Activity franchise, and I was truly looking forward to rewatching the first few and watching the last few for the first time. I loved the first one so damn much when it came out even though it absolutely terrified me, and while I would also love to review each movie for you, holy shit. I could not try to explain my love for As Above, So Below in the one paragraph movies are allotted in my wrap-ups, so here we are, dedicating an entire post to it. Someone go edit my top ten movies post from last month right now and drop this into the top five.

As with each of these posts, I won’t be using any jump scare gifs or outright scary images, so while we will be talking about the horror elements of this movie, you won’t have to see them, so scroll without fear!

as above so below | Tumblr

I have to kick this off with one of the primary reasons why I love this so much because it got mostly poor reviews, from what I could see, and I know y’all are going to roll your eyes at me and assume this is another King Arthur: Legend of the Sword moment where the movie isn’t actually good, and I just had a fantastic time. Not true because As Above, So Below got a lot of poor reviews because it requires outside knowledge, and I’m sure a lot of people just thought the second half of the movie was weird and dumb rather than a literal descent into Hell via Dante’s Inferno.

I jokingly said recently, on Twitter, that a literary punishment for trying to add stress to my reading would be that I had to write an actual dissertation on why The Divine Comedy is queer af, but that wouldn’t work because I actually want to write that someday. And now I’m thinking I’ll have to write that and just why TDC is so excellent. Because, without the Dante elements, this movie definitely wouldn’t have been nearly as good as it was, and most of the reason why I’m so in awe of it was because of how well they incorporated Dante’s lore of Hell.

But let’s take it all the way back to the beginning of the movie because everything works together to create this phenomenal plot-driven film.

When the movie starts with a scientist saying that if they die in search of the truth, they went of their own free will, you know it’s going to be good. I feel like most horror movies don’t really rely on plot. They give you a bit of one, nothing too fancy, and then you sit back for the scares. Sure, it’s fun if there’s actually something tying all the elements together, but I’m not really watching Paranormal Activity to understand the weird lore behind the demon that’s possessed the MC. I’m here to watch her be dragged down the basement stairs and all the cabinets in the kitchen to suddenly bang open.

That’s not what’s happening here.

We kick things off with Scarlett, a scientist that’s got a lot of degrees that I forgot pretty quickly because I hadn’t realized I was supposed to be paying attention yet. She’s searching for the philosopher’s stone, and the movie opens with her sneaking across the border into Iran to search through some caves that are about to be blown up. The beginning is chaotic, at best, and I was settling in for another standard jump scare horror movie. Sure, I appreciated the fact that they were actually giving Scarlett a background that made sense, and I was excited to see if they’d actually carry through with a real story to explain why they were going into the catacombs, but I wasn’t quite convinced yet. Not until just before the Iranian caves detonate.

While we’re stuck in a dark cave with shaky camera work, a terrified guide is pleading with Scarlett to turn around because sirens are starting to go off–I have an old fear of sirens thanks to Silent Hill, so that was a fun moment while wearing headphones–and there are soldiers running through the caves warning that they’re about to blow. And just before the explosion, Scarlett breaks through a hollow wall to find a giant, horned beast statue on the other side with archaic writing on it that she can’t decipher, so she quickly records them with her camera.

And this? Well, this is where I started paying attention.

I sat straight up, grabbed my phone, and texted my friend. Wait a minute. This has an actual plot. Because not only do they give Scarlett a reason to go into the catacombs, they give her more than just her reason. They show her doing what she does best–chasing the truth, setting aside her fear, risking her life for knowledge–even before we get anywhere near the catacombs. Truly, this movie isn’t about going into the catacombs for probably the first half hour. Scarlett has no idea that’s where she wants to go until she starts piecing together different clues–the Rose Key (horned beast statue) has Aramaic writing on it that leads her to Paris, where one of her scholarly friends is fixing an old church clock, and he leads them to Nicholas Flamel’s tomb, which Scarlett has already visited so she can properly explain the mythology to the guy behind the camera producing a documentary about her work, but which now opens up more questions. With her Aramaic-fluent friend, Scarlett is able to decipher more of Flamel’s tomb than ever before, and she quickly does a bit of illegal museum theft by taking the plaque off the wall so she can follow some hunch that there’s something hidden on the back of the plaque. After this success, they start to realize that the answer is below them. Literally. They have to find a way to get into the forbidden sections of the catacombs to try to find the philosopher’s stone under Flamel’s tomb.

And there’s so much time devoted to all of this world-building and plot. It’s not just a quick explanation thrown in before they descend into the catacombs. Truly, only half of the movie is actually set in the catacombs because the first half is devoted to making you understand why this is happening. This is not your ordinary found film horror where the characters quickly rattle off some blithe reasons for why they’re breaking into the catacombs. This spends time developing the plot, peeling apart the layers and actually showing you the research that’s been done before we even get to the punk French gang that’s going to help them B&E.

Okay, so now we’re actually at the catacombs, so now it should actually get scary, right? There have already been some scary elements, especially with that beginning, but nothing overtly jump scare or standard found film. Heck, but I forgot! Not only do we B&E the catacombs, but we get to see them as a tourist prior to Scarlett finding the punk French gang to help her. She basically canvases the catacombs before she’s even figured out how to get where she wants to go, taking the official tour so we can see them as non-scary before we see them as scary.

Fair warning: there are some loud moments in this movie. I’m talking loud like the sounds in Paranormal Activity, which made me jump straight out of my seat. You can mostly hear them coming, and they’re not quick, so you get used to them fairly quickly. Plus, if you’re remembering this bit and you’re up to date on your Catholic theology, you’re going to be expecting some trumpet-like, but much larger, sounds.

Hell, I could devote an entire post just to talking about all the Catholic elements in this, but we’re sticking with Dante for now because I vastly prefer him.

The first half of the catacombs section is fairly heart-racing. I wish I’d been wearing my Apple watch so I could see what my heartbeat was for this section because I could feel it in my throat, and I’m sure it was astronomical. There’s a lot of claustrophobia-inducing moments, and I thought for sure that the cameraman was going to bite the dust right at the beginning while there’s basically a Satanic chorus going on in the background. Which, honestly, the TDC elements begin even before the actual descent into hell. Right from the random disappearing guy telling Scarlett who can help her B&E the catacombs while she’s doing the official tour, we’re basically cracking the spine on Inferno. The Satanic sounding chorus? Well, Virgil hasn’t yet led Dante into hell, but we’re close, and these are the voices screaming at him in the forest as he approaches.

And this is also where the jump scares begin because there are a few, though they’re mostly predictable. You can tell, just from how the camera angle is set, that you’re about to be upset, so I usually half-avoided the jump scares by peeking through my hands. They honestly roll out a red carpet to the jump scare every time it happens, so as long as you’re paying attention, you’ll be able to see them coming and can look away if that kind of stuff is too much for you. Once they’re in the catacombs, there’s a brief fight about how they absolutely cannot go through a boarded up passage, even if it’s more direct, because there’s an old superstition about how it’s evil, and though Scarlett eventually defers to the punk French gang, who do this all the time, their terrifying climb through a narrow bone passage spits them out right back in front of the evil passage.

I started shouting at this point, “NOPE. DON’T DO IT. GO BACK. TURN AROUND. NOT WORTH IT, BYE, THAT’S DEFINITELY GONNA KILL YOU.” They didn’t listen to me, and I was mostly right.

I’m gonna do a quick hop skip and a jump past the first half of the catacombs because while it’s interesting, and while I enjoyed it a lot, this review is getting long, and I want to stick with Dante. This plot continues to maintain its strength throughout the first half, and I was really just so in love with each of the characters individually, so I was even more terrified when they finally reached the gates of hell. At this point, they’ve successfully found the philosopher’s stone, proven that it works, and nearly died. The way back is blocked, and a creepy, Virgil-like character tells them that the only way out is down, so they literally descend into hell.

Not metaphors here, folks, they actually drop straight into Dante’s version of hell, nine circles and all included. And this is where, I think, a lot of people watching lost steam. Because it seems really silly if you don’t know what’s going on. Why is a character suddenly buried face down with only their legs poking out? Why are these weird screaming faces on the wall suddenly coming to life? What’s with this river of blood? Who is that sketchy af cloaked dude walking around? All of it seems abrupt and weird and like the writers were just trying to throw everything they had at the audience to scare them, so it would probably come off as lazy writing and overall ineffective storytelling.

Unless what’s really happening is our characters are traveling through each of the nine circles of hell. Because, much like Dante, the only way out is down. To pass through hell, you must descend into the deepest pits of darkness, and only then can you find your way to light again. And look, my mom argues that all of this means that this isn’t a good movie, that relying on outside knowledge of Dante’s TDC means that you’re expecting your audience to basically do homework to understand your movie, but.

Here’s my argument: not only is the movie explicitly clear about the fact that these characters have literally found the gates of hell, the fact that everything is reversed just about shouts the truth of this so that the only way you don’t know they’re in hell is if you’re purposefully ignoring the information that the movie is giving you. Also, The Divine Comedy, particularly Inferno, is such a well known text that even people like my mom, who has probably read ten books in her entire lifetime, and half of those were in school, know enough about it to understand the elements in this movie. You have to be truly living under a rock to watch As Above, So Below and not see that a) they literally went to hell, and b) there are some TDC elements going on. You don’t have to have read it to see this. The movie makes it explicit that that’s what’s happening.

I don’t want to spoil too much more of this movie, and while I really haven’t spoiled anything good yet, you know enough that you should be convinced to watch it now. The second half of the catacombs section is what made this outstanding for me. There are other elements, like the excellent plot and interesting characters, that made me love this, but the attention to detail to TDC, the way the nine circles were depicted, and the journey that mirrors Dante’s until they reach the tunnel at the end? I wanted to give this movie a standing ovation.

It wasn’t nearly as scary as I was expecting–though when my cat, Grace, suddenly woke up to stare at me with her pupils huge and looking like she was seeing a demon, that was not a whole ton of fun–but, rather, hella nerdy. It really feels like someone dug deep into my bones, said ah yes let’s gift this Dante fanatic a horror movie, and just went to town on littering this with TDC lore and fantastic story. I’m not kidding when I say I want this in my top ten movies. It was exceptional. It’s made me want to reread Inferno. It’s made me want to read just more about Dante in general. It’s made me want to rewatch this movie several more times to look for all the elements I missed.

This is not just a horror movie. It’s a love letter to Dante. It’s a story inspired by his descent into hell. It’s for all the literature psychos out there who have consistently tried to peel apart the wild layers of The Divine Comedy over and over.

I just am so in awe of how hard this movie went in a direction I was not expecting, and I’m going to be thinking about it for a long, long time to come.

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she/her | yoga teacher | Tibetan Buddhism | part-time witch | full-time author | astronaut in a previous life

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