Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. A group of attractive young friends go missing, and though their bodies aren’t found, a camera is. On the camera is an account of their final days, beginning with a happy-go-lucky adventure, and ending in sheer unexplainable terror.
Yep, Devil’s Pass (released this Tuesday on DVD) is yet another entry in the tired found-footage sub-genre. Though The Blair Witch Project wasn’t the first to employ the technique, it was most certainly the movie that launched a thousand and one copycats. Released well over 10 years ago, Blair Witch still continues to give birth to children that are quite clearly the result of its DNA, and the latest filmmaker to take a stab at the whole “this is real!” gimmick is none other than Renny Harlin, whose name should be quite familiar to all horror fans. The Finnish filmmaker has one of the most diversified resumes on all of IMDb, including films like Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master, Die Hard 2, Cliffhanger, Deep Blue Sea and the underrated (in my personal opinion) prequel Exorcist: The Beginning. Dude gets around, is what I’m trying to convey.
Where Devil’s Pass brings something unique to the table is not in its filmmaking style, and certainly not in its execution, but rather in its concept. While many horror films over the years have claimed to be “based on true events,” only a small handful of them actually are, and Devil’s Pass joins movies like Amityville Horror, The Conjuring and Wolf Creek as one of the ones that truly does have a whole lot of basis in fact. The truth, as they say, is more horrifying than fiction, and the horrifying backstory on Devil’s Pass dates back all the way to the 1950s.
To make a long and incredibly bizarre story short, a group of nine hikers trekked to the Ural Mountains in Russia back in 1959, and soon thereafter all of their bodies were found, with varying degrees of trauma. One man’s skull was badly damaged while another woman’s tongue was ripped clean out of her mouth. Though many different theories have been presented over the years, everything from hypothermia to the Abominable Snowman being blamed for the deaths, to this day no concrete explanation has ever been provided. It’s become known as the Dyatlov Pass Incident, named after one of the ill-fated hikers.
The story is perfect fodder for a horror movie, to say the least, and Devil’s Pass is a fictionalized attempt to provide some sort of explanation for the incident. In the film, a group of five young people set out to expose the truth and make a documentary about the mysterious deaths, retracing the hikers’ steps in an attempt to once and for all figure out what the hell happened up there on that frigid Russian mountain. Of course, they soon find themselves in way over their heads, and learn the hard way that you should always be careful what you wish for.
There’s a certain formula to these found footage movies, as you well know if you’ve ever seen a single one, and Devil’s Pass does little to stray from that formula – at least in the first half of the film. The set-up for the majority of found found footage films is typically dull, boring and generic, and Harlin’s contribution is quite frankly no different in that department. For the first 45 minutes, Devil’s Pass plays out like a lesson from the Found Footage 101 handbook, as cell phones lose reception, strange things are seen and heard, and characters argue about the fact that one member of the group just can’t seem to stop filming every step they take, and every move they make. Though the location is a bit different than we’ve seen before from a found footage flick, the bulk of this one nevertheless instills serious feelings of deja vu – and not in a good way.
But something pretty interesting happens about halfway through Devil’s Pass. Though I of course don’t want to spoil anything about the film, two of the characters discover a heavy metal door on the side of the mountain around 45 minutes in, which is frozen shut. At this point it becomes clear that the mountain holds some really strange secrets, and from that point forward the movie becomes quite an interesting little horror show, rife with government conspiracies and vicious creatures – lest you think I’m spoiling anything by mentioning the creatures, you can thank the DVD cover for beating me to that one. True, things go down in the latter half of the film that are quite silly (and overly CG’ed), but at least it’s interesting, which is more than can be said about most found footage flicks – and again, more than can be said about the first half of this particular one.
Though generic and fairly uninspired for a good portion of its runtime, and though not a movie that belongs on any year end Best Of lists, I found Devil’s Pass to be incredibly interesting, which admittedly has a whole lot to do with the fact that I’m very much interested in and fascinated by the real Dyatlov Pass Incident. The strongest thing the movie has got going for it is that basis in fact, and since no horror movie has ever delved into the incident in the past, it’s a strength that goes a long way in making the film compelling. Of course, it offers up a totally fictionalized explanation for what went down in the winter of 1959, a pretty darn goofy one at that, but as someone who’s been reading conspiracy theories about the incident for many years, I got a kick out of seeing one of those theories come to life, as a horror film. Kinda shocked it took this long for someone to write such a movie.
Devil’s Pass reminded me a lot of 2012’s Chernobyl Diaries, which was also based on a real life incident, and I felt very much the same way about. Though both are fairly generic, and largely forgettable horror movies, I nevertheless had fun with both of them, and was able to look past their many flaws because I’m just plain interested in the stories they’re based on. This one is more or less Blair Witch in the snow, at the end of the day, but I very much appreciate the attempt to try and explain some of the aspects of the incredibly compelling Dyatlov Pass Incident, and my interest was held enough to recommend it to anyone who’s as interested in the story as I am.
Renny Harlin always seems to put together films that are worth watching, and Devil’s Pass is no exception. At the very least, it will leave you with the desire to do your own research about the incident, and form your own theory. A true story worth investigating for yourself, that’s for sure.
That said, if I never in my life see another found footage movie, you won’t find me complaining. It’s enough already, is it not?