The film industry is constantly in change – the introduction of sound, then colour, cinemascope, 3D, digital, each of which has seen new innovators and pioneers. As with any other art form or endeavour, while those who are carried on the winds of change see their careers rise, others find themselves swept aside. In the unceasing barrage of found footage horror films, even established directors have found themselves moving towards that genre, Rain Man’s Barry Levinson withThe Bay, Dog Soldiers’ Neil Marshall rumoured for the unnecessary American remake of Troll Hunter, and this film, from Renny Harlin.
In a chequered career, Harlin has seen the back-to-back successes of Die Hard 2 and Cliffhanger followed by Cutthroat Island, whose failure bankrupted its studio. The dubious pleasure of Deep Blue Sea indicated that his seafaring disaster had not sullied his enthusiasm for the waves, though the reception of the studio demanded reshoot of Paul Schrader’s prequel to The Exorcist, subtitled The Beginning, was so badly received Morgan Creek later took the unprecedented decision to allow Schrader to release his original version, subtitled Dominion.
With the release of The Dyatlov Pass Incident, Harlin may well find he looks back on those humiliations with increased fondness. Based on the true incident where nine hikers died in the Ural mountains in February 1959 in an area which has since been named after their leader, Igor Dyatlov, numerous explanations have been posited and are discussed by the students who wish to retrace their steps, led by psychology major Holly King, her film studies friend Jensen Day and expert climber JP Hauser.
Hypothermic dementia, paradoxical undressing and avalanche are among the possibilities, but more outlandish theories involving the abominable snowman and flying saucers exist, and Yuri Yaravoi, author of a fictionalised account, was killed in a car accident in 1980 which some believe was staged to silence him. While Holly’s tutor, Doctor Martha Kittles, professor of psychology, advises “Most of my students will project their own fears onto it,” Jensen is confident they will find the truth.
Rounded out by Denise Evers on sound and climber Andy Thatcher, in contrast to most films which fall into the found footage category the determined backpackers who set out for Kholat Syakhl, the Dead Mountain (so named for the lack of wildlife present, not Mountain of the Dead as it is ominously mistranslated here) are shown to be intelligent, educated, personable and even have a sense of humour; “You’re not going to use that silly red line?” a voice asks as Holly shrugs and said line merrily dots across the map to Russia in the time honoured Hollywood cliché.
Adding veracity in a manner which Frankenstein’s Army, for example, utterly refused to do, is the use of subtitles, forcing the audience to engage with the Russian news reports which list the team as missing within days of their departure, an audacious inclusion considering the alleged contempt American audiences have for foreign language films (see again the proposed remake of Troll Hunter).
Unfortunately, for all the genuinely interesting scene setting and development of the opening ten minutes, as soon as the film rewinds to show the footage recorded on the expedition, any intelligence and individuality is abandoned in favour of the stock scenes which have become so intrinsic to found footage it seems no director will challenge them.
Meeting with one of the original search party who disputes the record of nine bodies, saying there were in fact eleven, with something “wrong” with two of them (“You believe what everyone tells you to believe or you believe your own eyes?”), Holly is unconvinced, and what follows are scenes of arguing over whether to continue recording, arguing over whether it’s a conspiracy and arguing over withholding information before finding crucial evidence too conveniently left out and crying into the camera.
While the expected drinking/bonding session is given a suitably Russian flavour, the stunning scenery doesn’t make up for the absolute tedium of the story. When writer Vikram Weet tries to bring in some unusual elements the plot becomes truly preposterous before resigning itself to becoming The Descent in the final act.
Released in America under the title Devil’s Pass, the expansive crew, particularly in effects, indicates this was intended to be a major feature, and while it demonstrates an inflated sense of its own importance and there are moments of genuine tension supported by good performances from all, they are nowhere near enough to compensate for the numerous and undeniable failings.
The Dyatlov Pass Incident is now available on DVD and Blu-ray