Devil's Pass: Film Review

This low-budget genre exercise again demonstrates that the found-footage horror film genre is long past its sell-by date.

A group of university students investigate the real-life "Dyatlov Pass Incident" in Renny Harlin's found-footage horror film.

It’s distressing to find director Renny Harlin, who displayed such an excellent grasp of big-budget action filmmaking in hits like Die Hard 2, Cliffhanger and Deep Blue Sea, wading into the tired found-footage horror film format in his latest effort. Inspired by the true-life “Dyatlov Pass Incident” (the film’s original title) that took place in Russia’s Ural Mountains in 1959, Devil’s Pass squanders its provocative premise with its formulaic style and uninspired execution.

Rather than delve into the real-life case of nine Russian university students who were found dead under highly mysterious circumstances -- several had massive internal injuries despite no signs of external trauma, some of their clothing revealed high traces of radioactivity, etc. -- the film instead takes place in the present day, when a team of five University of Oregon students retrace the steps of their ill-fated predecessors with the intent of filming a documentary about their trek.

Naturally, the concept provides plenty of opportunity for the story to be told through the supposedly recovered low-grade video footage documenting the modern-day adventurers’ equally fateful experience, displaying the usual absurdity that apparently no one ever actually stops filming despite being faced with life-threatening circumstances.

The story begins with interviews with the group led by its chief documentarian Holly (Holly Gross), along with fake Russian news footage in which we learn such things that the Soviet authorities, in their typically vague manner, described the original hikers as having perished as a result of “a compelling natural force.”

On their way to the mountain range, the group experiences several disquieting episodes, including an interview with an elderly Russian woman who claims that there were actually eleven victims, not the nine reported by the government.

Once they arrive at the so-called “Mountain of the Dead,” they’re faced with such baffling incidents as footprints leading to nowhere that mysteriously appear in the snow and GPS navigation devices failing to work, all taking place in-between the sexual hook-ups that manage to occur despite the daunting physical conditions. They’re later struck by a massive avalanche, with the survivors retreating to a mysterious cave for the film’s sci-fi infused final section.

Featuring the sort of prosaic characterizations and dialogue endemic to the found-footage genre, the poorly paced film never manages to generate any genuine scares.  By the time it gets around to referencing such things as The Philadelphia Experiment, aliens and teleportation, it’s devolved into sheer ludicrousness.

Opens Aug. 23 (IFC Midnight)

Production: AR Films, Aldamisa Entertainment, K Jam Media, Midnight Sun Pictures, Non-Stop Productions

Cast: Holly Gross, Matt Stokoe, Luke Albright, Ryan Hawley, Gemma Atkinson

Director: Renny Harlin

Screenwriter: Vikram Weet

Producers: Alexander Rodnyansky, Kia Jam, Renny Harlin, Sergei Bespalov, Sergey Melkumov

Executive producer: Boris Teterev

Director of photography: Denis Alarkon-Ramires

Editor: Steve Mirkovich

Costume designer: Varvara Avdyushko

Rated R, 89 min.