Devil's Pass (2013)

Author: Brett Gallman
Submitted by: Brett Gallman   Date : 2014-08-05 05:56

Written by: Vikram Weet
Directed by: Renny Harlin
Starring: Holly Goss, Matt Stokoe, and Luke Albright

Reviewed by: Brett Gallman

"We're recreating a trip in which nine people died."

As a longtime fan of Renny Harlin, I feel like thereís two ways to approach Devilís Pass: it either proves that heís completely given himself over to mercenary directing or that heís actually capable of moving out of his comfort zone and delivering a film quite unlike most of his oeuvre. Because Iím an optimist, Iím choosing to believe in the latter, if only because Devilís Pass is his best film in ages. A cynic might say this only entails Harlin essentially stepping aside for the filmís found footage gimmick, but restraint is a commendable element of filmmaking. Hell, do you know how hard it must have been for him to refrain from blowing up this goddamned mountain?

Said mountain is a particularly treacherous stretch of the Urals that claimed a group of nine hikers in 1959. For decades, the Dyatlov Pass incident has confounded scholars, as the bizarre details surrounding the ill-fated company defy explanation. Oregon student Holly Goss (Holly King) is impelled to unravel the mystery as part of her graduate thesis*, so she puts together a filmmaking team to document her investigation. And rather than beat around the bush when it comes to their fate, the film cuts from these wide-eyed, optimistic students to a solemn newscast reporting their disappearance in the Urals: thereís a reason this footage always has to be found, after all.

In keeping with the filmís conspiratorial tone, the newscast confirms the existence of the studentsí footage, which has been leaked by a hacktivist organization in order to shed light on their last days, a framing device that adds another layer to the tightly-wound mystery driving the story. Considering Devilís Pass in terms of Harlinís work actually buries the lede a bit, as screenwriter Vikram Weet has crafted a pretty sharp script around a killer idea. Sure, it piggybacks on the natural intrigue surrounding the actual Dyalotov party, but the script and Harlinís reserved direction reshape it into a quietly effective horror movie, if not an overly familiar one.

Thereís little denying how perfunctory Devilís Pass feels, especially after enduring the recent deluge of similar films. You can almost set your watch by the slow-burning plot developments, from the crewís ominous meeting with a stranger to their experiencing increasingly bizarre phenomena (lights in the sky, inexplicable footprints, etc.). To its credit, the film leaves the door wide open for all possibilities: Hollyís right-hand-man (Matt Stokoe) is a conspiracy theorist who cooks up all kinds of explanations: a government cover-up, aliens, a yeti. Itís almost admirable how much is tossed around since it basically courts disappointment when the actual revelation is uncovered. I mean, how do you expect to top a Yeti?

The actual explanation is a bit of a double-edged sword: itís pretty far out there but so much so that it almost feels too outlandish within the reasonably constrained setup. Like many found footage films, Devilís Pass escalates all the way to pure mind-fuckery territory, with the characters frantically running around (with their shaking cameras intact) encountering a parade of weird things compelling them to ask each other just what theyíre seeing. Harlin is at his best here, as the filmís script ratchets up to his usual speed: roasted, contorted corpses pile up as inhuman spirits flit about a grungy bunker otherwise overflowing with cryptic military reports and other, even more unfathomable discoveries. Whatís refreshing, though, is how Harlin manages to re-center the proceedings and recapture the subtle, creepy tone for the filmís brain-twisting denouement; so many found footage films are content to remain frustratingly enigmatic, but Devilís Pass is pleasantly tidy in its handling of various plot threads.

That Harlin has managed to make a film thatís even marginally unsettling and creepy (as opposed to a 100-mile-an-hour missile screaming in your face for 90 minutes) is pretty remarkable. Donít get me wrong: he totally manages to at least bury some of the kids in an avalanche (and, if weíre being honest, all of them are pretty disposableóthis is the type of film where the narrative effectively overpowers its characters), but Devilís Pass is mostly memorable for its icy, desolate atmosphere, as the filmís authentically gorgeous Russian locations are breathtakingly eerie. Without the benefit of credits, I would have never marked it as Harlinís, but thatís a damn sight better than the dismay inspired by Hercules 3D this year. At least this one engenders hope that heís not going to be stuck in directorís prison foreveróperhaps Devilís Pass is like the saw hidden in a cake thatíll allow him to hack his way out. Rent it!

*Between this and The Den, itís pretty clear that you donít want to bother with graduate school. Even if you survive, youíll still be left with the real nightmare: student loans.

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