BLACK OPS (2019)
aka STAIRS, THE ASCENT
Directed by Tom Paton
Written by Tom Paton
Starring Rachel Warren, Toby Osmond, Shayne Ward, Simon Meacock, Sophie Austin, Samantha Schnitzler, Bentley Kalu, Alana Wallace, Spencer Collings, Matt Malecki, Piotr Baumann, Phoebe Robinson-Galvin, Julia Szamalek
BLACK OPS, also known as STAIRS and THE ASCENT, is a decent little mix of military and horror. This is another one of those films that feels as if it would be better as an installment in a TWILIGHT ZONE-style half-hour or hour-long series. Still, I liked the premise and the overall production shows someone took some care in putting this film together and making it look and feel unique.
A black ops special forces team is returning from a mission that went sideways, resulting in the death of a hostage they rescued from the enemy. While the team is torn between whether the right thing was done, the headstrong leader Will (Spencer Collings) refuses to hear any dissent in the ranks or alternate opinions on his call. When the team returns to debrief with their superiors, they find themselves in a never-ending staircase. Haunted by the warning muttered to them by the hostage before she was shot, “Don’t go down,” the team realizes that any attempt to go anywhere but up find them attacked by unseen evil forces. Faced with a problem they just can’t shoot away, the team battles with themselves and try to understand why they are in this predicament.
Filled to the brim with tough guy lines and sentiment, it is interesting to see these hard-nosed soldiers take on something that they can’t explain. The story is fun, and while the problem is right there and obvious to anyone watching, it’s entertaining to watch these soldiers, who have been conditioned not to question orders or facts, faced with a problem that requires more finesse and thought. One of the reasons I think this would work better as a short is because the solution is right in front of their noses and the longer they don’t realize it, the denser these soldiers seem. I think that truncated runtime would be a benefit for the film as sometimes it feels the scenes are drawn out or characters are given repetitive things to say in order to fill time.
I like the way filmmaker Tom Paton lights BLACK OPS. Every scene seems to be saturated in a different base color. Scenes playing out in what seems like reality are green, but the stairwell is lit in blues, while other scenes are bathed in red. Each different locale appears to have a different hue which makes it easy to distinguish where the story is taking place and what it is meant to symbolize in this broad strokes story.
The acting is decent. While some have backstories, most of the cast are just there to be picked off one by one as they try to figure out the problem. Not everyone acts like a real person, as some simply sacrifice themselves in order to up the kill count. But some, like the hard-headed Spencer Collings, the stoic Bentley Kalu, and the moralistic Alana Wallace, give some memorable turns.
Though I prefer some of the alternative titles to the rather generic title BLACK OPS, I found the film to be entertaining, though somewhat repetitive and long-in the tooth. The soldiers feel authentic, the threat is kept vague, and the effects never get away from the budget. There is a deft hand at atmosphere and tension at play with Tom Paton’s film and I think if you’re looking for a low budget, PREDATOR style military vs. sci fi mashup, this one is not going to disappoint much.