There are thriller movies you remember a long time after watching. “The Silence of the Lambs,” “Psycho,” “Shutter Island,” “The Blair Witch Project”—these are just a few examples of movies that can carve into your memory for the rest of your life. Speaking of the latter one, its main value is not the plot (which is rather standard: a group of students lost in the woods die one by one) but rather a strong mystical atmosphere and its pseudo-documentary style, nowadays called “mockumentary.” The idea of peeking at mysterious and tragic events through the eyes (or a camera) of one of their direct participants definitely became a strong staying in the world of cinematography, inspiring a large number of professional and amateur directors to create their own mockumentaries. Not all of them managed to make the most out of the genre, but at least once in a couple of years, movie directors indulge us, the viewers, with something worthwhile.
The movie I will be reviewing today, “Devil’s Pass,” is yet another attempt at creating a mockumentary movie, this time based on real events: the Dyatlov Pass incident. I have never heard of it before, so prior to watching the movie, I googled a bit, and was not disappointed. In fact, this real-life story could already become a plot for a movie. In 1959, a group of nine Soviet students led by Igor Dyatlov, an experienced hiker, set off on an expedition to a place in Siberia called Kholat (its full name in the language of local tribes is much longer, though, and means “The Mountain of the Dead” in translation).
The group was well-prepared, so no one expected any problems. Still, all nine people were found dead, and the circumstances of their demise were so strange that the case remains unsolved even today. Any rational version of how the tragedy occurred has at least one serious flaw that does not fit in the explanation, and the circumstances in which the group died are more than strange. Here are some facts for you:
- An investigation found that the group had suddenly left in an organized way, since everyone moved in one direction and altogether from their camping place in the middle of the night (the temperature outdoors reached -30 C that night). However, their tent had been cut with a knife from the inside in several places, as if people were trying to leave it in panic, and many of their things such as boots (!) were left inside. Some students walked away barefoot.
- Although there were no signs of coercing on the students bodies, some of them were found with their ribs broken to dust. One female student had no tongue in her mouth. I will skip other disturbing details.
- One of the bodies had been found in an unnatural pose, as if worshipping something.
- The elements of clothing on one of the bodies were emanating radiation. Besides, the skin on at least several bodies was burnt, and/or of a strange color (orange, to be precise).
I strongly recommend you reading the full materials on the incident; they can be easily found online in English. In my opinion, no horror fiction is even close to the sinister mystery of the Dyatlov Pass incident. And now, let’s move on to the movie.
Directed by Renny Harlin in cooperation with Russian cinematographers in 2013, “Devil’s Pass” promised a lot. A famous and spooky backbone story, Russian Siberia, a detective first-person thriller, a possible solution of a half-century old mystery—what else could you wish for? The actors were unfamiliar to me, but the director had previously worked on such movies as “Cliffhanger,” “Die Hard 2,” “Deep Blue Sea,” “A Nightmare on Elm Street 4,” and many others, so I expected the movie to be at least alright. However, what Harlin did in “Devil’s Pass” is controversial—and, in my opinion, so different from his previous work—that I still cannot figure how I feel about this movie.
Caution: the rest of the review contains minor and major spoilers.
It starts out as usual: a group of five students travel to Russia to visit the place where Dyatlov’s expedition died and to make a documentary movie about it. All the suspense is pumped in rather trivial ways too: a psychiatric asylum with an old man asking the students to leave; a bar where Dyatlov’s group drank moonshine before the expedition, and where the main characters do the same; an old lady who saw the bodies of Dyatlov’s group, claiming there is some sort of conspiracy behind the 1959 story, and so on. What I liked, though, is how Harlin showed Russian remote towns: no dancing bears, no balalaikas, no other stamps about Russia that make you cringe since 1980s B-movies—only things you expect to see in places like that. Old brick buildings, snowbound cars, local kids listening to rap music, huge icicles, stray dogs… I bet if you go to Alaska, you will see pretty much the same picture. Russian people speak crude, but understandable English—something you expect from a civilized country in 2013. All this makes Russia look like a real country—in my opinion, once in a very long time—and greatly contributes to the overall credibility of the movie, obviously due to Harlin’s Russian partners. My thanks to them for this.
Surprisingly, cliches and logic flaws begin after students depart from the town; details added to the movie for additional suspense turn out to work not in its favor after you watch “Devil’s Pass” to the end. While on their way to Kholat, students one by one refute various versions of what really happened with Dyatlov’s group, making you guess what Renny Harlin’s own version of the tragedy is. The first morning in Siberian waste brings the first mystery: huge footprints on the snow. People accuse each other of making bad jokes, then move on. Soon they find an old disabled meteorological tower, with a torn out human tongue inside. No jokes this time, everyone is scared. By the end of the day, the two main characters—a blond girl and a cameraman (I forgot their names, to be honest, that’s why I keep saying “people” and “students” all the time) find an old Soviet biker door sealed from the outside. They decide to keep it in secret for a while, since the rest of the group is already too edgy. On the second night, an avalanche takes the life of one of the students and cripples another one. The cameraman shoots a signal flare, then two strangers appear and start shooting, killing the crippled guy and injuring his friend. The blond girl, the cameraman, and the injured guy hide in the bunker, and the strangers seal the door from the outside. The unlucky survivors are trapped in the eerie underground complex, which turns out to be a secret Soviet laboratory.
The end of the movie is probably its best part, even though it totally contradicts the rest of the movie: it is dynamic, scary, and the finale is disturbing and mind-boggling. Unfortunately, this is also the part that brings in all the logical flaws and inconsistencies I mentioned. The blond girl and the cameraman leave the injured guy near the lab entrance and set off to find an exit. While searching, they discover some classified documents, from which it turns out that Soviets conducted experiments on teleportation in this lab. The couple finds creepy meat hooks, more sealed doors, and a fresh body of a soldier, his tongue missing. After this, they hear the injured guy screaming (and obviously dying) and run into two scary, teleporting humanoid creatures. Although the CG effects were not that brilliant, the way these creatures moved and teleported really freaked me out—so unnatural, so I liked this part. After a short chase, the blond girl and the cameraman find an entrance to a strange cave, sealed doors behind them (as it turns out, the creatures cannot teleport through the bunker’s metal doors), and end up in darkness–safe from creatures, but having nowhere to go. In the cave, they suddenly (!) discover some sort of a time wormhole, and having no better options, step into it. The movie ends with a scene from 1959, when Soviet soldiers looking for bodies of Dyatlov’s group unexpectedly find two more bodies—the cameraman and the blond girl. They are seen by another member of the rescue team—a young woman (remember that granny with conspiracies from the beginning?). The soldiers carry the two bodies to the lab—in 1959, it is still operational—hang them on the meat hooks (but why?), leave the bunker and seal the doors from the outside. One of the bodies starts to move, and we can see that it is the blond girl, already mutating (or whatever happens to her). At the very moment you realize the two main characters are the teleporting monsters from 2013, the movie ends.
The first and foremost flaw is that Harlin never managed to explain why the hell Dyatlov’s group actually died. The cameraman and the blond girl teleported to 1959 already after the bodies of Dyatlov and his friends were found, so teleporting monsters cannot be the explanation to their demise.
If the teleporting monsters from 2013 cannot pass through the sealed doors, which is logical, the creatures cannot catch the cameraman and the blond girl in the cave—then whose footprints did the students see after their first night near Kholat? The footprints were too large even for mutants, so they totally fall out from the story, unless Harlin wanted to make a joke and it was a cameo of a yeti or something.
Why did the cameraman shoot a signal flare horizontally?
If the tongue in the meteorological tower belonged to the dead soldier found in the lab, then who was that soldier? And what was the tongue doing in a tower anyways? Some kind of fridge for delicacies?
The logic of this movie is gaping with holes larger than the time-travelling one in the cave, and this is probably the biggest Harlin’s drawback: he piles up a bunch of facts inspired by Dyatlov’s incident, then refutes them all with his own version that still explains nothing.
Nevertheless, I liked the movie. Why?
As paradoxical as it sounds, because of the plot twist in the end. If it was a bit more thoroughly crafted, it would turn the movie into a solid mockumentary conspiracy thriller. If there was no out-of-the-blue wormhole, but a Soviet time machine prototype. If Harlin omitted all the unnecessary and trivial suspense methods and focused on the details of the original real-life story. If only…
Well, instead of listing other “ifs” I’d rather focus on some other aspects that made me assess the movie positively and recommend it for watching.
The actors worked well enough to make you believe you are watching a documentary. The cameraman (the real one, not the character) did a good job creating the credible effect of presence and amateur filming. The CG effects could have been better, but Harlin is not Michael Bay, and the movie’s budget is obviously lesser than one of “Transformers.” Overall, I had no big pretensions to the technical part of “Devil’s Pass.”
I appreciate what Harlin’s Russian colleagues did—I assume they consulted him on what life in Russia really looks like, so “Devil’s Pass” is the first American movie about Russia that does not look like it was filmed during the Caribbean Crisis. The pictures of Siberian nature, the remote Russian town of Vizhai, friendly but harsh locals—all this creates a rather unique atmosphere, making you believe you are watching a real documentary.
And, of course, the historical background underlying “Devil’s Pass.” If you plan to watch the movie, do yourself a favor and research the Dyatlov Pass incident first. Learning some blood-chilling details, understanding that it happened for real and that there is no credible explanation even after almost 60 years, will set you in the right mood and definitely compensate for all the flaws in Harlin’s movie.
“The Blair Witch Project” is still the best mockumentary in my personal list. However, if Renny Harlin ever creates a remake correcting the mistakes he made, I will gladly put it above “Cloverfield,” making “Devil’s Pass” my #2 favorite mockumentary of all times. So far, it’s five points out of ten. Nice try, Renny.
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