The Dyatlov Pass Incident
(aka Devil’s Pass)
Russia/Finland 2013 Directed by Renny Harlin
I’m going to try really hard not to put any major spoilers on this because, you need to go in fairly blind.
The Dyatlov Pass Incident is a found footage horror film directed by Renny Harlin and it looks and feels a little like a big budget Blair Witch clone. However, that’s not necessarily a bad thing and I have to say, I was quite taken by this and, not just the film itself but the real life incident which inspired it.
Okay... to paraphrase the actual still footage montage at the start of the film, let me get to the facts first. This is real life now and a somewhat unexplained mystery, despite what the Russians are now saying which, in light of what’s known about the case, seems like a pretty ludicrous kind of cover up (hence why all the interest still). In 1959, a group of nine students went on a hike in the Ural Mountains to a mountain which is known to the natives as... The Mountain Of The Dead. Their frozen bodies were found scattered around the area of Dyatlov Pass near where they’d camped for the night. Evidence suggests they’d ripped out of their tents in a panic and some of them were in a state of undress. One had her ribs crushed. Two others had crushed skulls. But... and this is something... these three, if what I’ve been able to gather from some quick research on the actual event, had no soft tissue damage. As one of the characters in this movie says, how can someone’s skull be crushed from the inside without damaging the head? Also, one of the group, I think the same one with the crushed ribs (I’ll need to look into this further), had a large amount of radiation found in the body. And, furthermore, witnesses in the area talk about seeing orange lights in the sky that night.
Okay, that’s the real life bit. I don’t know much more but there are a few books about this on the market and I am going to have to read one of those soon because it’s fascinating stuff. This movie attempts to ‘answer’ the mystery with a found footage horror/sci-fi story about a bunch of five students set in contemporary times, who go to the Dyatlov Pass to do a film about it.
Holly King (played by Holly Goss) is doing a film dissertation and she chooses her friend as cameraman, Jensen (played by Matt Stokoe), two experienced mountain hikers from their University, John and Andy (played by Luke Albright and Ryan Hawley) and her friend Denise (played by Gemma Atkinson) on sound. And they had me straight away in their filmed introduction when Jensen says to Holly, “You’re not going to use that stupid dotted line to show us travelling, right?” Then his voice comes on saying “Wrong.” as an animated dotted line comes over a map so we can see what their route will be. I don’t know why this hooked me but... it just did, okay?
Anyway, once we’ve met the five students, we then get a montage of news footage showing us that these five making this movie have all disappeared on Dyatlov Pass, although their back packs and equipment have been recovered. We are then told that hackers have been able to retrieve footage from their various bits of camera equipment and phone cameras etc and released it onto the internet. After a bit of foreshadowing with just two of the characters in that footage seeming to be on the utter point of despair, the rest of the movie plays out carrying on from the introduction, as though we’re watching the hacked footage.
So, yeah, we get the usual preludes and then, when they get to the Dyatlov Pass, things begin to happen. And there’s a neat trick where slight bands of interference on the camera are used as a kind of early warning system for the audience that something ‘may’ be about to happen. As well as just to make the viewers anxious of course. Actually, now that I’ve read a little about the film, I also know something else very specific is happening on the periphery of some of the shots when the interference is present which I totally failed to notice the first time I watched it. So, I’ve just ordered a proper Blu Ray edition (I watched this on a new, free and bizarelly legal streaming site called w4free.com), so I can rewatch it and see the things I missed.*
Anyway, as I said and without giving too much away, things begin to happen, the deaths start to occur, the number of antagonistic parties interested in the students doubles and... things start to escalate to a very chilling last 20 mins or so in a really well put together way. Now, there is a little bit of an extra dimension to the ending and, I have to say, as soon as another real life and very American ‘incident’ is talked about and ‘blended’ with this particular tale as part of the background to what is happening (fanciful but fun, in my opinion), I actually managed to figure out exactly where this was all going to end up. It’s a shame that the ending... which is pretty nicely done... failed to take me by surprise but, I have to say, it was real fun getting there and I don’t really care that the big ‘reveal’ was something I’d already got to because, frankly, it’s the perfect ending for the film. I also liked the way they revealed something ‘for sure’ to the audience in the final shot which was planted in an ‘off the cuff’ shot very early in the film (just to spell it out for stragglers)... I was definitely entertained by this one.
What else? Well, the acting job between the five main protagonists is great. This kind of found footage film is always something you need really good, naturalistic actors for and these people really hang together well as a unit. Yes, it gets a bit like a Blair Witch parody at times but, like I said at the start of this review, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
And I like that, now I know how the film ends, there were gazillions of clues scattered throughout which hinted at what was coming. Even down to a shot of someone’s ear in a train carriage near the start of the movie or the compelling ‘entities existing in parallel’ kind of angle to the back story dreams and LSD experiences of two of the characters, which makes for intriguing reflection after the movie has finished.
So, yeah. If you are into those found footage horror movies, despite the excellent camerawork that these students were able to make during their misadventures (there’s something about the jerky camerawork here which still smacks of being overly competent with a camera somehow), then The Dyatlov Pass Incident is definitely something I’d recommend. And also, the bonus here is, I now get to research and explore the actual real life incident this was inspired by... there have been a number of tomes written about the subject so, yeah, sometime next year I can hopefully put a review of one of them up for you on here. I also understand there’s a fictionalised TV series about the original incident coming very soon, too. Meanwhile... watch this movie, it’s pretty effective as a horror experience.
*Oh yeah, watched it again... nice Easter egg, just like the Gorilla playing basketball experiment from years ago... how did I even miss that first time around?