SEAT AT THE BACK - SCRIBBLES! ~ It's that time of year again: THE RAINDANCE FILM FESTIVAL in London! On now.. See you there!

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

'THE ASCENT' (2011) / LONDON 2012 RAINDANCE FILM FESTIVAL PREMIERE ~ 'a woozily atmospheric uneasy movie that conjurs up a suitably sinister atmosphere of real godly evil'


*This review contains plot spoilers in the sackcloth - watch before reading!*

'The Ascent' played at the 2012 London Raindance Film Festival. A Montenegran movie, this was a dark, fairy tale-like horror alternating between the claustrophobic settings of an isloted farmhouse and those wide expanses of mountainous landscapes so familiar from the westerns of Anthony Mann such as 'Winchester '73' and 'The Far Country' (the director of The Ascent - Nemanja  Becanovic, has admitted Mann's work is an influence on the sparse, panoramic look of his debut film). The look of the film is also inspired by the painter Andrew Wyeth's work; 'Christina's World'.

There is a defined creative colloboration in 'The Ascent' across the countries that gained independence from the former country of Yugoslavia, with Macedonian, Slovenian and Bosnia and Herzegovinan cast members joining the Montenegran filmmakers. This was a deliberate attempt to create a cross-cultural, unified creative base in the area; to make filmmaking a collaborative process.

There are many films that 'The Ascent' can be compared to; and strangely enough I had a sense of Wes Craven's 1981 slow-creep film 'Deadly Blessing' (small-community, unsettled setting and superstition a theme from the off)  mixed in with a dash of Derek Jarman's virile 1976 film of 'Sebastiane' (especially the final third of biblical oddness bubbling to the surface in 'The Ascent' before the final horrific act of redemption) - if that's not an unusual, but fully accurate criss-crossing of genres, then I don't know what is. And in the spirit of this cross-country filmmaking ethos (and if the word ethositistical existed, which it sadly doesn't, then this film is that word) kind of vibe going on here; absurdly appropriate. 

Jovan (Amar Selimovic) is a struggling writer straight out of the pages of a Stephen King novel, who plans to get away from it all and find inspiration in the wilderness, a bit like Jesus before him (Jovan has writer's block - even though he's never written a book before - so he's one of those struggling with that 'difficult first novel'!). The plan is to live in a rural location (in the shadow of a mountain range) at the home of an incestuous family (and we later discover the family's incestuous leanings along with Jovan when he spies the sister and brother start to snog each others' faces off in the - as Tom Jones may well have sung - yellow, yellow grass of home). This is a family who will probably never let poor Jovan go home without first placing him in chains in the cellar and feeding him to the hungry sheep in the nearby field (actually, the poor boy may wish - by the end of the film - that such a fate had befallen him).

The family consists of gruff Dad, silent wife, weird brother and bonking sister and as soon as he arrives at their house, it's clear these are people with serious issues - for one thing, the crops have all stopped cropping and the animals have all stopped humping. Basically the farm is in meltdown or in ethositistical (sic - but I'm trying to use this word more often in all my reviews from now on just because it's mine!) uncertainty. Only the poor visiting writer chap can save the day (in-between not writing his book). Luckily, he doesn't get asked to hump the cows or anything so practical. What he does do - is give them a new (and terrible) lease of life. Not the cows - the family. Oh, and he gets to hump the farmer's daughter as part of this spiritual and financial rebirth much as Edward Woodward nearly did a similar thing to the landlord's daughter in The Wicker Man (except, of course, being morally upright - he didn't). I think the only answer to a double dip recession is for politicians to do a similar kind of thing to us lot, in dire straits (oh hang on, just remembered they aleady do shaft the nation on a four yearly basis).


In fact, The Ascent has a lot in common with The Wicker Man's themes of isolation, ritual, superstition, variations of religious excess and general sense of unease amidst all the joy and wanton nakedness. The sequel to The Wicker Man; 'The Wicker Tree' that I love nearly as much as the original, is perhaps even more similar with its obsessive themes of sterility, surrogate fertility and isolation within a closeted community - the ending of 'The Wicker Tree' sees a young evangelical couple corenered in ancient ruins and a village closing ranks. 

'The Ascent' is a woozily atmospheric uneasy movie that conjurs up a suitably sinister atmosphere of real godly evil that creeps up slowly and never really lets go. It's a perverted, cruel lifestyle the family here lead - not just the random slaughter of animals deemed to be struck down by the malaise sweeping the countryside, but the lives of the family themselves under the cruel hand of the domineering father (Vlado Jovanovski authentically angry and bloody scary as Daddy Zeko).

Towards the end of the film, the father offers his (deliciously attractive, unsurprisingly!) daughter; Vesna (played with open-mouthed seduction and butter-wouldn't-melt conviction by the clearly intriguing actress Inti Sraj who sharpened her horror nails in 2008's 'The Gorjanci Vampire') to the writer who has brought them hope in the form of reading sections of the bible out to them, and pretty soon we get the sense that 'The Ascent' of the title, isn't about climbing up mountains in this glorious landscape of High Country proportions - it's a religious ascension.

The unfathonable father in 'The Ascent'; Zeko, is especially well played by Vlado Jovanovski and remains one of the best authentically doomy and creepy older men I've seen from my safe seat at the back of the cinema in ages; strong and rugged and as much a part of the landscape as the rocks that clutter the horizon. Clearly, he is ruthless in his determination for the farm to be rejuvenated, and unforgiving in his distrust of strangers. What tips the balance into horror? This is a family that never encounters the world outside of their daily existence; when a young man arrives preaching bibically epic words of possible life after death there seems to be some glimmer of hope here which the family understands and thinks it can latch on to; a healing of the sickness that inhabits the land. Salvation. Resurrection. Is the virginal (unless you count the brother having his wicked way)daughter offered up as a Mary Magdalene-figure to this Christ-like visitor because they need his fertility to provide continuing life to the family before their awful plans go any further?
The contrast between sex, love and death is never more shocking than it is in the final moments of 'The Ascent', in the same way 'The Wicker Man' plays similar tricks with the apparent fragility (or stupidity) of mankind (sex and life being the opposite side of the coin to infertility and death in that film as much as they are here; the spinning coin makes no distinction). In the same way old crops are burned to make the soil fertile and create new life; Jovan is that old crop ready to be burned or the cattle led to the slaughterhouse. He has become - for this family - a way of (their) life. Part of their harvest. Sure, these are familiar themes in horror, and they are slow-dragged here to a predicably awful (visually and emotionally) narrative climax that I have never seen the likes of before (except in movies of the life and death of Jesus, but not horror - and again, the visual links to Jarman's 1976 film Sebastiane, in the final image as well as the landscape, are clear, if not deliberate).


The ending of the film is genuinely shocking and fairly unexpected. I heard some members of the audience claim it was too obvious. Maybe so - but since when did films have to play tricks or trick you to be considered a good movie? If 'The Ascent' was a whodunnit I could understand the criticism. It's not; it's more a meditation, a long languid stroll through a desperate country that feeds on what we may consider the unsavoury, but which (to this family) has become a way of life - or a way to live.

'The Ascent' isn't perfect, but the long and languid cinematic stamp of cinematography and expansive shots contrasted with the small, cramped, wood-rotting and 'anciently-built into the landscape by bare hands' setting of the isolated family home were hugely enjoyable and visually impressive. Dad and daughter combo, Zeko and Vesna were perfect though; I loved their performances, and poor Jovan suitably creeped-out and (eventually) shocked to the core (too convincingly - this was 'snuff shock').
The music, hushed folk and eventually more rousing orchestral theatrics, is used well. The atmosphere suitably isolated and huddled (the film was shot in the winter sports centre in Zabljak). So what's missing? I think, actually, that while horror doesn't need to be explicit to scare (and the best horror is often the implied), 'The Ascent' (while a uniquely memorable and creepy film wearing classic movie convictions ranging from westerns to horror on it's sackcloth sleeve) sometimes plays it too safe. The seduction scene is, for instance, fairly tame and chaste, despite the queeziness of the daughter/ author one night ferility rite stand, rendering the whole idea perhaps less shocking than it should be - an exposed bare back from a dropped gown and a bit of shadowy naughtiness on a rickety bed doesn't have much to offer an audience who have been drawn in to the plot by the warped sense of existence this family leads (and also waiting to be shocked now). To be fair, the chaste sex (and maybe we are used to films such as 'The Wicker Man' and 'The Wicker Tree' especially, going all the wicked way) fits well with what is a subtle and brooding movie (even the incest is only implied) until the end; when the horror payoff strikes an unexpectedly painful blow. 

Leaving the cinema after the film's UK premiere at Raindance, I bumped into a woman who looked very much like the actress Inti Sraj who played spooky daughter Vesna, though seeing as the actress in the movie was streaked with dirt and underdressed most of the time - hair suitably wild and eyes dulled; it was hard to be sure. The film premiered at the Raindance Film Festival in one of the smaller screens at the Vue cinema and it was hard not to walk into other audience members on the way out, in nearly complete darkness. 'Vesna' smiled at me when I nearly bumped into her, and I smiled back. I thought I was in love, but I felt (after an hour and a half of slow-boiling paranoia and thinly-veiled female menace) more ready to run.

Words: Mark Gordon Palmer/ 2012



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