New to Blu: Dark Angel: The Ascent (Reviewed)

For the first half of the '90s, Full Moon Entertainment were the kings of straight-to-video horror and sci-fi, cranking out some very memorable films like Puppet Master and Subspecies that were among the most well-made flicks produced specifically for the VHS and laserdisc market. While their output dropped in quality in the later-90s and never really recovered, they have never forgotten their roots, and over the years have offered several re-releases of the movies from their “golden era,” when they were a subsidiary of Paramount. But up until recently, those DVD re-releases typically featured the same old fullscreen laserdisc-quality transfers that we had been seeing since the films were new. This never bothered me, mind you: I just figured that they still looked like the made-for-early-90s-home-video films that they were, and it was an authentically nostalgic way to watch them. Over the last few years, though, Full Moon has been giving these films some beautiful restorations for blu-ray: going back to the original negatives or interpositives, overhauling the rushed-at-the-time color-correction, and releasing the films in widescreen for the first time since whatever theatrical premieres they may have once gotten. While part of me will always love the nostalgic experience of watching these films on tape, I can't help but be really impressed by these restorations: they really show off just how good early-Full Moon's production values were. The latest vintage Full Moon film to get the blu-ray treatment is 1994's Dark Angel: The Ascent, and we were lucky enough to get an early look at this new restoration.

Dark Angel is an interesting but very flawed film. At a story level it is very ambitious, and it has some very interesting themes at work. Unfortunately, this ambition hits a wall of limitations forced upon it by the low-budget, and I can only imagine fairly rushed, production. It's not an outright failure – I was too intrigued by its core concepts to call it that – but it is nowhere near a success. Ultimately it falls pretty flat, and is one of the weaker Full Moon flicks from around this time (though not quite at the rock-bottom that is Lurking Fear). It seems to be going for a dark, adult-oriented hybrid of superhero and vigilante story, a la The Crow, but it never really finds a firm narrative drive. It is about a demon (Angela Featherstone) who dreams of going to the world above and living among humans (like some sort of hellish Little Mermaid), but when she arrives in our world she is shocked and horrified by how cruel and violent it is, and makes it her mission to dish out vengeance against evildoers. As a premise, this is great – as is the philosophical undertone that the residents of Hell aren't evil, but are like a metaphysical justice system with a strict ethical code. The early scenes in particular are very entertaining, as we observe our demon antihero, Veronica, living in Hell with her parents who just don't get her: it's a very normal, very human situation, except surrounded by Gothic horror set-pieces and fire. The dissonance between the visuals and the drama is used for a welcome bit of humor, as the premise is established with tongue firmly in cheek. Some of the types of human evils she encounters is also quite interesting, as it is every bit as relevant today as it was twenty years ago when first released: racist cops beating up black pedestrians, a decidedly Trump-ish politician throwing around hateful anti-immigrant rhetoric. It's a bit depressing how much our go-to examples of systematic oppression and bigotry haven't changed or diminished at all in two decades... but this also means that the themes at the center of Dark Angel have aged well and remained current.

"It's so hard to find ways to articulate your teenage angst when you
are already literally in hell..."

Unfortunately, nearly everything else about the script is pretty disappointing. Her acts of vengeance against evil humans have no real direction or narrative thrust; it feels far too haphazard and random. Unlike Eric from The Crow, Veronica isn't hunting down any specific people or pursuing any specific end, but is instead just generically going after evildoers. This robs the story of any sense of a three-act structure in progress, as none of it feels like it is building towards anything much. Perhaps the biggest problem is that there is no real villain; there is a sleazy public figure who becomes the focus of her scorn (in what seems like an unlikely homage to Taxi Driver), but even that character is given almost zero weight or real importance. If this movie was to work, it needed a Big Bad equivalent to The Crow's Top Dollar, and the absence of one feels like an empty space in the plot. Naturally there's a love story as well, between Veronica and a human, but it again is lacking the emotional weight or quality of writing that it needs to feel authentic. The acting is pretty wooden all around, which doesn't help matters, but it's honestly difficult to say how much is due to the actors' talent levels, and how much has to do with the clunky dialogue they are being made to deliver. Despite having a really interesting premise, the weak script just drifts around aimlessly until it ends with an equally weak and poorly thought-out anticlimax.

"Do you like my torture-typewriter?
I borrowed it from Terry Gilliam."
Then there's the matter of the films visual style, which is equally a mixed bag. The first few minutes are the strongest, with a vision of Hell that looks absolutely great, especially for such a low-budget production. According to the film's behind-the-scenes featurette, the Hell sequences were lit entirely with the fire seen on set, and no electric light. The results of this artistic challenge are very strong, and these sequences show off how good Full Moon movies could look. The rest of the film, however, is a different story. The atmosphere is great, with lots of deep shadows and blue and red lights... but the setting is a problem. Like so many Full Moon movies, Dark Angel was shot in Romania; a location which is great for European-set Gothic horror films like the Subspecies series. But the script for this film clearly implies that it's supposed to be set in New York City, or some other large American city. This creates a really weird dissonance where we are constantly aware that we are watching a film, because the characters are always talking as though they are in a different environment than the one they are clearly in. This probably happened because this was the only location they could get in the time and budget that they had... but it badly harms the movie. They either needed to shoot their exteriors in North America or rewrite the movie to be set in Europe; instead it feels like they just hoped the audience wouldn't notice. Big mistake.

Still, the visuals of the film largely do look really good even when they may not be right for the setting, thanks to the moody lighting, locations, and set design that were Full Moon's specialty at this time. And with this very impressive new blu-ray restoration, they look better than ever. This transfer, from the original camera negative, looks really good: very rich in detail, with a healthy presence of film grain and very few detectible defects. The colors were handled beautifully in this restoration: the stylized blue-and-red-heavy lighting really pops, and the (literal) fire and brimstone of the Hell sequences have been pumped up so that the images radiate heat. Particularly in those early scenes in the underworld, the film looks quite cinematic for a straight-to-video production, and certainly benefits from its newly-restored 16x9 aspect ratio. The film was undoubtedly shot with a 4x3 home video aspect ratio in mind, but comparing this remaster to the VHS release reveals that the tape was somewhat open-matte, but with a bit of cropping on the sides. The 16x9 presentation crops the top and bottom of the image a bit in comparison to the tape, but never in a way that crowds the image or cuts off anything of importance, and it also expands the sides of the picture out, revealing new details here and there. This new framing strikes a pretty happy medium in bringing a widescreen aspect ratio to a film shot with fullscreen in mind, and shows off some pretty compelling wide shot compositions. Of course, the restoration also makes obvious some of the film's low-budget flaws that they might have counted on being hidden by the soft quality of VHS – particularly where the not-terribly-convincing demon prosthetics are concerned. While it looks very good for what it is, there is no mistaking this for anything but a low-budget film of its era, and especially with high def putting that quality right out there, you need to give it a bit of a break in certain aesthetic aspects. Still, for a film of this variety and this age, Dark Angel could not possibly look better on blu-ray, and Full Moon deserves some praise for the love they show even their lesser films like this one.

"What's the matter? Can't sleep?"
"No - that enormous blue light outside
your window is keeping me awake."
Dark Angel: The Ascent is not that good. It's not horrible, it's just... there. The worst thing about it is that the premise easily could have been made into a really good movie, and the Hell sets in the first act deserve a better film. The ingredients are there... but the bad script and weird circumstances of the production stop those ingredients from ever coalescing into something that works. This one is definitely a miss for Full Moon, even though it could have been a hit with just another couple script rewrites. Still, they made worse movies, and if you're a serious fan of the studio's prime years of the early-1990s you may want to give it a look. At the very least, it's really nice to see Full Moon taking such good care of the films that made them famous, with these really well-done blu-ray restorations. They are an important piece of cinema history – the very best examples of the golden age of straight-to-video genre films – and it's great that such films are being restored and preserved so well. Since we already have blu-rays of a bunch of the really good Full Moon flicks, like Puppet Master 1-5, the Subspecies trilogy, and Doctor Mordrid, it's only appropriate that they show some love to some of their lesser films as well. I'm excited to see their blu-ray line continue: there are a few of their movies that I'm really looking forward to seeing remastered, like the extremely fun Seedpeople. Still, this one will pretty much only be of interest to die-hard fans. If' you're new to Full Moon, check out some of the ones I just mentioned instead.


- Christopher S. Jordan