Since “The Blair Witch Project” popularized the genre back in the 1990s, there has been countless found-footage movies made with those annoying shaky cams held by young people being chased by something in the dark. “Devil’s Pass” by Renny Harlin is fully aware of this and manages to make a pretty solid entry into the genre while having a pretty good sense of humor about it. At one point one character asks the leader of the doomed documentary crew “You followed a plan that got 9 people killed, what did you think was going to happen?” Good question.
The movie draws its inspiration from the Dyatlov Pass incident, a real-life mystery that took place in the Russian mountains back in 1959. We are so informed by a crew of American documentary students who intend to follow the steps of the doomed expedition and find out why its members suddenly decided to tear through their tents in the middle of the night and subsequently freeze to death. The incident became an urban legend, spawning plenty of crazy theories from aliens to the Yeti. Perhaps it was both?
No big spoiler, the Americans become just as unlucky as the Russians back in the 1959 with only their footage found, which the Russian government refuses to release to the media. However in a sign of our times the footage is leaked to the web by a group of hackers called Conspiraleaks. Kudos to the writers for that idea, since to me the biggest mystery has always been: who found that bloody footage in the first place and who did the editing?
For the most part the handheld footage by the young Americans is business as usual. We see them on the train as they get excited for their adventure, they get to interview some locals about the mystery, and they get more than a few warnings that this is a really bad idea. One of the most amusing is the five of them going to a bar where the bartender serves them the exact same drink as the doomed expedition. That can’t be a bad omen right?
One of the ways in which Harlin’s movie stands out from the pack is its setting. Instead of being set in some abandoned mental asylum or dark woods in the middle of nowhere, this documentary crew uses its hand held cameras to film some incredibly gorgeous mountains. If it weren’t for the impending doom, these students would be busy admiring the snowy landscapes and the northern lights. It also helps that portable cameras nowadays are so small and can give you such good image quality, resulting in a very clear picture of what is going on as the bodies start pilling up.
As for the horror aspect of the movie, it builds slowly as it should and occasionally can be very creepy. You get a feeling there is something really weird in those mountains and at one point you think you just might have spotted it in the footage while the crew wasn’t looking in the right direction. The deaths themselves are not too gory, but a scene where a character suffers an open fracture is not for the faint of heart.
The explanation of the deaths is quite original, but almost too clever as it almost takes the movie into a completely different genre. Until then, “Devil’s Pass” is a strong addition to a horror category that has seen way too many weak entries over the years.
(“Devil’s Pass” is available on Blu-Ray and DVD and is on Netflix.)