One of the best experiences you can have when watching a low budget shocker is finding a film that knows exactly what it is and strives to stay within the confines of its resources. Dena Hysell demonstrates her mastery of this concept with her newest offering, Ascent to Hell, by fully committing to the B movie facade and ultimately breaking through it with the use of restrained camerawork, a handful of well-placed homages, and a cast who have fun with the material. Hysell combines these elements to deliver a ghost story that revels in the simplistic foundation of its design and comfortably toys with the inherent boundaries.
Azura Skye stars as a real estate agent who is given an odd assignment which involves selling an old and possibly haunted factory to an up and coming millennial celebrity and her entourage. Skye is no stranger to the horror genre and she approaches the lean material with a graceful sense of commitment, keeping the focus on the story at hand rather than her character's initial plight. She is supported by Cayleb Long who portrays a construction expert who becomes enamored with the unusual elements of the factory. As with Skye, Long does an excellent job in keeping with the theme, but it is his understated display of academic curiosity that steals the focus. The rest of the cast is an expected mismatch of victims, but how they meet their various ends is one of the film's strongest advantages. Golan Ramras's script is surprisingly abrupt with its killings and conservative with the violence, contrasting other small projects who attempt to mask shoestring budgets with buckets of blood.
Will Turner's cinematography initially appears innocuous, however once the action moves inside the factory, his adherence with the film's theme of moderation shines. The use of odd angles, typically found in horror films is remarkably low and instead long, sweeping takes are used to capture the budding group dynamics between the victims and to enhance the feeling of lonely suffocation that runs throughout the movie. Natural light and deep shadows are used to great effect to keep everything mysterious. One of the more interesting visual choices is that vibrant coffee colored historical scenes are edited within to mirror their modern counterparts, symbolizing the "life" of the supernatural and the impending doom of the living.
Hysell allows more indulgence in the homage department. William Ryall's central specter has an unmistakable similarity to Herk Harvey's harrying wraith in Carnival of Souls, showcasing Jessica Toth and Kaela Dobson's creepy makeup designs. Black smudges of former victims who hunger to be among the living conjure references to Kurosawa's Pulse, while Mj Mynarski's horn infused score is a throwback to the noir atmosphere that pervades the past world intruding on the present.
Available now for digital rental, Ascent to Hell is a film that gives you exactly what you expect and even a few surprises. The usual suspects are present, such as a cheesy, but fun script filled with cliché' characters hamming it up and doing their best to appear scared despite it being obvious how much fun their having. However, Ascent to Hell never tries to be anything more and that is the best part. There's some excellent aspects that are punctuated by an ending that you will almost certainly see coming, and yet will still be surprised by how Hysell takes the predictable into unexpected territory, the undeniable hallmark of this scrappy, architectural haunting.