Movies: Devil’s Pass (2013)

I think I’ve written before about my ambivalence toward most found footage movies, so for the life of me I can’t remember why exactly I had this particular film on my radar for review, and why I placed it on my schedule. It was probably because A) someone recommended it; B) it was about the Dyatlov Pass incident, a famous unsolved mystery that 13 O’Clock did a show about a while back; and/or C) it was free on a streaming service somewhere. Since C turned out not to be the case—I could have sworn I saw it free on Tubi or something, but when I went to watch it, I couldn’t find it there, so ended up paying a couple bucks to rent it on Amazon Prime—it must have been one or both of the first two reasons. That said, this was an okay found footage flick; it takes a lot of liberties with the true story that inspired it and the CGI effects were decidedly not awesome, but it had a neat twist at the end that actually made me like it more after I watched it than I did while I was actually watching it, if that makes any sense.

Interestingly, Devil’s Pass is no cheapjack found footage situation made by a bunch of amateurs with cell phones; it was directed by Renny Harlin, who while not a massive superstar auteur or anything, does have some big blockbuster films under his belt, such as Nightmare on Elm Street 4, Die Hard 2, Cliffhanger, and Deep Blue Sea. The film came out in 2013 and was originally titled The Dyatlov Pass Incident. Though I’m not sure how much this movie cost to shoot, I will give props to Harlin for actually filming it in northern Russia near to where the actual incident took place, and specifically choosing relatively unknown actors so that the film would have more of an air of verisimilitude. And because, in the context of the story, the characters are professional filmmakers working on a documentary, the movie is shot nicely too; there’s very little of that amateurish, shaky-cam bullshit that tends to turns people off the found footage subgenre in general.

Critical and audience reaction to the movie seems as though it’s been pretty mixed, and leaning more toward negative, with the main sticking points being its lack of originality, its deviance from the actual mystery, the unlikability of its characters, and the outlandishness of the final twist. While I will concede all those criticisms and agree with them to some extent, I will say that this is a perfectly watchable film, better than many found footage films I’ve seen; though the twist ending is out there for sure, I actually sort of dug it, though I can totally see why some people might think it was stupid, or even disrespectful to the actual people who died in the incident.

I feel like everybody who would be reading this already knows what the Dyatlov Pass incident is, I’ll just give a brief summary for those who might not. Back in 1959, a group of nine very experienced Soviet hikers died in the northern Ural Mountains under somewhat mysterious circumstances. At some point on the night of February 1st, the hikers cut their way out of their tent and ran out into the sub-zero temperatures wearing inadequate clothing; all were subsequently found dead. Six of them had died of hypothermia, but strangely, the other three were found to have died of some kind of physical trauma. Theories about what killed the hikers range from the reasonable (avalanche, animal attack) to the conspiratorial (military coverup) to the incredible (aliens, the Yeti). Although it’s almost certain that some mundane explanation exists for the tragic deaths of the nine young people, the unusual details about the case have sparked people’s imaginations for decades, and the incident is a popular topic of discussion and speculation in the weirder pockets of the internet.

So making a film based on the incident seemed inevitable, though I’ll note that Devil’s Pass isn’t based on the direct incident itself; in other words, it isn’t set in 1959 and following the actual hikers who died. It’s actually set in the present day, and centers around a small group of filmmakers who are shooting a documentary about the real occurrence, and are traveling to the area where it took place in order to retrace the hikers’ footsteps and maybe try to get a handle on what happened to them.

Our two main characters are Holly (played by Holly Goss) and Jensen (played by Matt Stokoe), who are co-directing the feature. While Holly just seems intrigued by the case as a whole and is curious to visit the site where it occurred, the somewhat insufferable Jensen is one of those smug, “well, actually” motherfuckers who condescendingly tells Holly that everything she knows about the Dyatlov Pass incident is wrong, wrong, wrong. Even though he does end up being correct in the universe of the movie, that doesn’t make him any less punchable.

The rest of the gang consists of JP (Luke Albright) and Andy (Ryan Hawley), the expert mountain climbers; and Denise (Gemma Atkinson), the sound engineer. After some brief establishing stuff taking place on a college campus in the US, and some preliminary footage from the “documentary” that gets the audience up to speed on the broad outlines of the actual Dyatlov Pass case for those unfamiliar, the group heads out for Russia.

The first thing they do is head for a mental health facility to speak to the sole surviving member of the original group of hikers; this character, only seen from afar, was based on the real-life Yuri Yudin, who was supposed to accompany the Dyatlov group but had to opt out shortly into the journey because of health issues. In the movie, the filmmakers try to talk to the guy, but a bunch of orderlies come out and tell them the guy is dead. As they’re leaving, though, an old man comes to a second-floor window and holds up a cardboard sign with something written on it in Russian, though none of the filmmakers can read it.

Later on, while having a drink in a bar after a disappointing first day, the gang meet a nice fellow named Sergei (Nikolay Butenin), who offers to give them all a ride to the base of the mountain, since no train goes out there. One of the group asks Sergei to translate the phrase the old man wrote on the sign, and Sergei tells them it means “stay away.” Not real encouraging, but the gang decides to forge ahead anyhow.

It so happens that Sergei is going to see his elderly aunt, who not only lives near where the filmmakers are going, but was also on the search team who found the original hikers back in 1959. She tells them that she saw eleven bodies, not the official nine, and that the “extra” two bodies were situated away from the others, looked very strange, and were accompanied by what she called a “machine.” Remember this for later, because it plays into the twist at the end.

Once the group get into the mountains, you get the expected camping scenes, interpersonal dramas, and so forth, most of which is fine but not really what you paid to see. To the movie’s credit, weird shit does start happening fairly quickly: one morning, the filmmakers awaken to find a series of large footprints in the snow, made by someone—or something—walking in bare feet. Holly is freaked out, but everyone else just thinks she faked some Yeti shit for her movie, despite her claims of innocence.

The gang follow the footprints to a weather station that’s been all torn to hell, where they find an object which appears to be a severed tongue. There’s also the unsettling fact that their GPS devices are all screwed up, and that they seem to reach Dyatlov Pass way earlier than should have been possible.

At some stage, there’s an avalanche that kills one member of the team, and later on, two of the gang stumble across what appears to be a hidden door beneath the snow, leading into a bunker carved into the mountain. I won’t spoil what the explanation for the original Dyatlov incident is purported to be, but I will reveal that it involves creatures of some description, as well as a conspiracy/science fiction element that namechecks the Philadelphia Experiment. Some reviewers thought this plot twist was too far out, but I didn’t mind it, though I will admit that it’s not really all that believable, especially since the CGI looks so video game-like, but it’s just an entertaining flick at the end of the day, and not meant to be a creepy, realistic examination of what actually happened to those real hikers back in the 50s. It’s not scary at all, but it does have an interesting premise, and after you watch it, you’ll probably realize that clues were peppered into the film all throughout the runtime that you might not have even noticed at first; only in retrospect does some of the stuff make sense.

If you like found footage and are interested in a story somewhat based on a real, mysterious case, then you might get a kick out of this film, but just don’t expect it to be giving you a plausible scenario for what may have actually happened. If you don’t like found footage, Devil’s Pass isn’t original or noteworthy enough to change your mind, though I will mention that it’s far better shot than many found footage movies, and doesn’t have that amateur feel to it. It’s not fantastic, but I did have a good time with it, and the twist at the end made me reassess the film as a whole and appreciate it a great deal more.

Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends.


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