On February 2, 1959, a group of ski hikers died in the Ural Mountains of western Russia under mysterious circumstances, in what’s known as the Dyatlov Pass Incident. Among the oddities: All of the victims were found wearing little clothing and no shoes; two of the hikers had fractured skulls, and another two cracked ribs, but in no case was there any external injury; one of the corpses was missing its tongue. Evidence showed that the hikers fled their tents in the middle of the night, cutting their way out, but nobody knows why or what happened afterward. Theories range from the mildly bizarre (a phenomenon called “paradoxical undressing,” which is apparently not uncommon in cases of hypothermia) to the absurdly paranormal (evil aliens). Sounds like a pretty solid premise for a speculative chiller, no?
Here’s the trouble: Devil’s Pass isn’t actually about the Dyatlov Pass Incident. It’s about five blandly good-looking American kids who decide to make a documentary about the Dyatlov Pass Incident but subsequently disappear in the same area, leaving behind—sigh—their camera equipment. Of all the found-footage horror movies released since The Blair Witch Project, none has so closely aped the original, right down to the plucky female director (Holly Goss), the interviews with locals prior to heading out, the disorientation that renders their map useless, the discovery of human body parts, etc. When the film finally does diverge from Blair Witch territory, it does so by borrowing ideas from other sources: a door in the middle of nowhere, leading to an abandoned lab, recalls the hatch from Lost, while the night-vision horror climax is straight out of the Spanish cult movie [REC] (and/or its American remake, Quarantine).
Since found-footage movies are purportedly shot by the characters, hiring a muscular action filmmaker like Renny Harlin seems like overkill. To his credit, Harlin frequently cheats, ditching the plausibility of his conceit to get the most evocative shot possible. That’s especially true of the film’s final act, which is significantly stronger than the generic bickering and fretting that precedes it; suddenly, there’s creepy art direction instead of boring post-grads trudging through snow drifts, and the twist ending, while not exactly original, has been so methodically planted by screenwriter Vikram Weet over the course of the entire film that it qualifies as reasonably clever. Getting to that point, however, requires a strong appetite for this exhausted genre, plus a willingness to endure many feeble attempts at humor (zooming in on the hot chick’s boobs, and so forth) and some very wan romance. Those already familiar with the Dyatlov Pass Incident, meanwhile, should banish it from their minds. It’s of no real consequence here, which is a shame.