Renny Harlin has had a long career directing films. So long, in fact, that he has been nominated for a golden raspberry award for worst director an astounding five times over the course of three decades. I’m honestly impressed. How many other filmmakers would have been afforded the opportunity to spread such cinematic misery over such a long time? And I do mean misery. It is a miserable experience to watch Cutthroat Island or Driven. But, to be fair, it’s not all bad. Harlin made Deep Blue Sea, after all, which is one of the most sublime shitty movies one will ever see. What to make of Devil’s Pass, then, his found footage horror film from 2013?
From a screenplay by Vikram Weet, Devil’s Pass tells the story of five student filmmakers from the United States who trek all the way to the Ural Mountains in Russia to investigate the Dyatlov Pass incident, in which nine Russian hikers died under mysterious circumstances in 1959. This was a real-life occurrence, and worth looking up if one wishes to learn about something truly strange.
Back in movieland, the five students, Holly (Holly Goss), Jensen (Matt Stokoe), Denise (Gemma Atkinson), JP (Luke Albright), and Andy (Ryan Hawley), arrive in Russia to make their way to the site of the tragedy. Along the way locals are surprised when they learn what the Americans are up to. Perhaps there is some secret of which the locals are aware.
After beginning their climb into the mountains, things begin to get weird. Upon waking one morning, the group find bare footprints in the snow that travel for a few feet, and then disappear. They look like human prints, but are very elongated. When they arrive at the site, they discover a concrete bunker hewn into the rock of the mountain, sealed by a hatch that locks from the outside. Whatever the bunker is for, it looks designed to keep something in, rather than keep prying eyes out.
It takes more than half the film, but eventually the characters are forced into the bunker, and the final act provides denouement. To get into the plot any further would be to spoil too much. Before the climactic sequence in the bunker, not a lot happens in this film. It’s sort of like The Blair Witch Project in that, only with less happening. That sounds like an indictment, but although not much happens in the setup phase to this film, there’s enough mystery surrounding the plot that it doesn’t drag all that much.
In fact, it’s the climax that is the weakest part of the film, and that’s because it’s so derivative. By the point this film was released, found footage had been done so many times that all the films had begun to look the same. Young people who still haven’t lost their sense of immortality film everything happening around them. Things get weird, yet the cameras still roll. Things get downright life threatening, yet the cameras still roll. Finally, the last survivor or survivors find themselves in a confined space with little light, so they switch the camera to night vision, only to find that something is stalking them in the dark. The night vision finale was pioneered by [•REC] in 2007, and the technique has popped up in so many found footage horror films since that it’s basically a requirement.
As far as the cast is concerned, Harlin and company went with faces over talent.
Despite all this — slow setup, derivative nature, uneven cast, and some bad CGI in the finale — the ideas behind this film hold it together. The Dyatlov Pass incident is a great starting point for a film (so much so that maybe Harlin should have filmed that story, instead). Some of the ideas stretch even sci-fi credulity, but the entire package gets the wheels turning. Any film that can keep someone thinking about it after the credits roll cannot be a total failure. However, it can be mediocre.