In the winter of 1959, a team of nine experienced hikers ventured into the northern Ural mountains in Russia on an expedition. Days later, they were all dead. Soviet investigators found that the hikers tore their tent open from the inside and ran out into the -30 degrees Celsius temperatures in socks and bare feet. While there were no signs of struggle, two of the bodies had fractured skulls and two had broken ribs, though there were no signs of external trauma. Another was missing her tongue. Oh, and there were traces of radiation found on some of the bodies. With no rational explanation for the bizarre deaths, investigators concluded that the hikers perished from “a compelling natural force”, and the mystery became to be known as the Dyatlov Pass Incident.
More than 50 years later, a UK-Russian production decided to make a film about the incident, with famed filmmaker Renny Harlin (Die Hard 2, Cliffhanger, Deep Blue Sea) signed on as director. Instead of making this a movie about what happened during the incident itself at the time, however, the producers decided to make a modern “found footage” movie about a bunch of American college students who decide to make a film of themselves retracing the steps of the fateful hikers.
The result is a mixed bag. As a low budget movie with no-name actors and a director still reeling from The Long Kiss Goodnight in 1996, The Dyatlov Pass Incident is actually quite clever, entertaining and occasionally frightening — relatively speaking. Renny Harlin still has some tricks in his bag and knows how to create tension and scares that don’t keep relying on the same tactics.
Much of the intrigue, however, stems from the crazy mystery itself and the script’s creative take on what happened to the hikers, which is not bad given that none of the theories (from avalanches to Yetis to aliens to secret military weapon tests) have been accepted as foolproof. I won’t give away what this film speculates, though all I will say is that it is fresh and no less stupid than what’s already out there.
On the other hand, the decision to turn this into yet another lame found footage flick in my opinion backfired by making the movie less real and authentic. What it means is that we have to deal with the wobbly cameras (though not as bad as in some films), the irrational reasons to “push on” with their expedition despite massive warning signs, and forcing the characters to hold on to their cameras when they are running for their lives. It makes the film campy and silly. We’ve seen so many of these attempts since The Blair Witch Project that this approach mostly annoys and irritates rather than create more tension, and it’s baffling why studios keep doing it.
The acting from the cast, especially the five American students, also leaves a lot to be desired. They just aren’t very likable or believable, and we just can’t wait for them to do meet their inevitable gruesome end. Part of that is the fault of the script, which is solid from a big picture perspective but doesn’t do much for the characters. The low budget also means the special effects are fairly poor and often look video gamey (and as a result they had to utilise a lot of darkened shots).
On the whole, The Dyatlov Pass Incident feels like a bit of a wasted opportunity because it is such an intriguing mystery. With a more conventional format (as opposed to found footage), a bigger budget, more bankable stars and some tweaks to the finer aspects of the script, this could have been a great film. At best, it’s a surprisingly entertaining DVD rental or on-demand flick (which is how I watched it), and I suppose that’s not a bad thing given its humble ambitions.
3.25 stars out of 5
PS: The film is titled in some regions as Devil’s Pass, which is generic and completely uninteresting, whereas its original title, The Dyatlov Pass Incident, is far more intriguing. The stupid poster for Devil’s Pass also has a naked woman with her back turned to the camera, which also makes no sense if you’ve seen the film. Go figure.
PPS: Trailer below, though I should warn that there are major spoilers from about the 1 minute mark. Never ceases to amaze me how trailers like to ruin everything.
PPPS: If you are interested in reading more about the incident, including the most prevalent theories, check out the links below.