2013 - 100 minutes
Directed by: Renny Harlin
Written by: Vikram Weet
Starring: Holly Goss, Matt Stokoe, Luke Albright, Richard Reid,
“Devil’s Pass” (aka “The Dyatlov Pass Incident” internationally) unites a director who peaked nearly two decades ago with a horror sub-genre that has been more miss than hit as of late. The tenuous mixture does nothing to revitalize the more-than-capable Renny Harlin (director of “Die Hard 2”), or the found footage horror category. It’s far from horrible, but it just sort of lingers until a revelatory conclusion that, while virtually un-guessable, lacks any real punch.
Earnest Oregon college student Holly (Holly King) has secured a grant to investigate the mysterious Dyatlov Pass Incident – a real-life event where 9 experienced hikers were found dead in the Ural Mountains in 1959. The most likely explanation is an avalanche, but as with any catastrophe conspiracy theories abound – from covert weapons tests to alien interference. The filmmaker within the fake found footage film, Jenson (Matt Stokoe) forcefully puts forth many ideas he likely found online.
The 1959 “incident” has several facts that could serve as intriguing setups for speculative fiction: the hikers were discovered wearing little clothing, one was missing a tongue and there were fractured skulls and ribs without serious external trauma. But “Devil’s Pass” isn’t interested in proposing serious answers to these questions, only getting these kids to this place to unleash its outlandish climax.
Blindly determined but offering no clue as to what their real motivations are, Denise, Jenson, their buddy J.P. (Luke Albright) and a couple of climbing experts take off to Russia with no concrete plan of what to document or how to do it. The film follows this pattern as well, turning what could be an interesting investigation into a slow, plodding burn that is all about pulling the rug out at the end. Performances are lackluster, missing a natural sense of banter with a lot of conversations devoted to relaying information about their equipment and why and how footage is being shot.
Luckily, the crew in “Devil’s Pass” wanders into a bar with a helpful drinker that can give them a lift and also has a familial connection to the 1959 incident. How convenient. Of course, this also leads to a cryptic interview with someone who knows something, but reveals just enough to add a little more fuel to the investigative fire.
Once the steps of the original hiking party begin being retraced, the location takes over as the most interesting character in the film. Trading the wooded setting of “The Blair Witch Project” (from which this film borrows from heavily) for the barren snow-covered mountains, there is an icy sense of dread when strange noises are heard and unexplainable footprints appear around the students’ campsite.
Unfortunately, the third act completely abandons the eerie natural landscape for a labyrinth of underground bunkers filled with secret government documents. Night vision and POV runs through dark tunnels are just a couple examples of uninspired, tired tricks of the genre that surface.
Of the mystery I will say no more, but I can almost guarantee you that you won’t anticipate what happens. Though grand in scope of imagination, the scripting from first-timer Vikram Weet lacks stakes and feels small – in the moment, at least.
Within the world of the film, the footage of the students was released online. After seeing it for myself, I couldn’t help but think about what would happen after this footage was viewed by millions on YouTube. Whatever it is would probably be much more interesting than the fate of these dull kids that plays out over 100 well-edited and dutifully shot minutes. It all feels like preamble to something greater that doesn’t materialize.
© 2013 by Blake Crane