By David Dent
Tom Paton’s movie played to excited crowds at last year’s FrightFest under its original title ‘Stairs’ and with good reason: it’s a tense, clever melon twister, a heady concoction of action and ideas.
In Eastern Europe a crack British Special Ops team called ‘The Hell Bastards’ are on a mission; to kill the members of an outpost battalion and any prisoners, gather up all the information held in the camp, and get out. They achieve this, but only after one of the team – Kia Clarke (Samantha Schnitzler, also in Paton’s last film, ‘Black Site’) – is reluctantly forced by fanatical squad leader Will Stanton (Shane Ward) to kill the battalion’s lone live captive, an ethereal woman who it is later learned is named ‘The Prophet of Death’; before she is executed she tells the group “Don’t go down!” which at the time means nothing to them.
Back at HQ for their debrief, the six members of the squad attempt to access the lift to the top floor office, but it’s out of order. So they have to take the stairs. But after walking up innumerable flights, with no sight of the floor, they need to reach, they realise something is dreadfully wrong. One of their group descends to a lower floor, just as the Prophet of Death’s final words are remembered, and lets out a scream.
Seeking exit from the floor they’re on, the group go through a door which is actually a portal back to the same outpost battalion; confused, they repeat their mission but end up on the same set of stairs. The team realise that they are stuck in a time loop, and that the only way to break it is to ensure that the Prophet of Death, whose blood drenched spirit haunts them relentlessly, does not die. Which should be easy, right? But things are way more complex than that.
As you’ll have gathered from the synopsis, ‘The Ascent’ takes elements from any number of ‘time on repeat’ movies where the repetition of events gives breathing space for those stuck within them to refine their actions on each cycle (think 2014’s ‘Edge of Tomorrow’ and even 1993’s ‘Groundhog Day’). But Paton plays this one for the action, not the characterisation, and so little is learned about the members of the squad as they replay the mission, although we’re left in no doubt about the sheer physicality of what they’re going through, and the cliché ‘war is futile’ takes on a new meaning.
For a film on a slim budget – the two settings are a dressed field and a flight of stairs – ‘The Ascent’ remains remarkably diverting. It’s brilliantly edited, and the reference by one of the team to ‘Back to the Future 2’ shows the awareness of cinematic subtext which curiously aids the enjoyment of the film. A little shorter would have been good, but that’s a minor quibble: I think this is probably Paton’s best yet.
The Ascent will be available on BirdBox plus iTunes, Amazon, Sky Store, Sony, Xbox and Google Play from Monday 15th June 2020.
Watch the trailer for The Ascent below –