In February 1959, Igor Dyatlov and nine other Russian hikers journeyed into the snowy, frigidly cold Northern Ural Mountains. One turned back on the first day of the trip. The other nine were found dead a few days later, some testing positive for radiation and others with their bones seemingly crushed from the inside. To this day, there is no definitive answer to what happened to them. Using the so-called "Dyatlov Pass Incident" as an intriguing jumping-off point, found-footage horror-mystery "Devil's Pass" imagines the fictional possibilities of the case by sending five college kidspsychology students Holly (Holly Goss) and Jenson (Matt Stokoe), audio engineer Denise (Gemma Atkinson), and expert climber guides Andy (Ryan Hawley) and JP (Luke Albright)on an expedition to recreate the footsteps of the doomed hikers. Their hope is to find some sort of resolution to the questions that have baffled scientists and investigators for fifty-three years, and, in the process, create a documentary out of the footage they shoot.
Anyone who is intimately familiar with this particular subgenre of film will likely be of two minds about it. Directed by Renny Harlin (2006's "The Covenant
") and penned by first-time screenwriter Vikram Weet, "Devil's Pass" is an overt copycat of 1999's "The Blair Witch Project
," the picture hitting every single narrative beat of that innovative box-office phenomenon. The lead female protagonist is an ambitious go-getter with a tendency to boss people around to get her way. There are disconcerting discoveries outside their tents after their first night sleeping among the elements, and an even more ghoulish find hidden in a weather tower. As tensions rise and it becomes clear the group is in danger, arguments break out. There is a tearful breakdown. The finale, set in an underground lair they find hidden in the powder, is noticeably similar to Heather and Michael's climactic search of the witch's house they come upon in the woods at the end of "The Blair Witch Project
." There are no two ways about it; "Devil's Pass" is derivative. Where the film partially redeems itself is in a twisty zinger of a conclusion that, finally, is not only giddily original, but also entirely unexpected. Revealing itself to be impeccably constructed, the movie somehow locates a fresh angle in the last moments, making the familiarity of what has come before forgivable.
Bookended by eerie black-and-white photos of the smiling real-life Russian hikers mere days before they met a terrible fate, "Devil's Pass" is heavy on foreboding and undoubtedly draws one into its story (only in the occasional false performance moment does it pull one back out). Filming on a low budget, director Renny Harlin (who knows his way around studio blockbusters, having made 1990's "Die Hard 2: Die Harder" and 1993's "Cliffhanger") ensures there is a certain polish to the production values within a setting that must have been enormously difficult to shoot and maneuver around in. His use of CGI in an important late scene is a letdownit would have been far scarier with traditional make-up and practical effectsbut said disappointment all but vanishes once the whole of Harlin's and writer Weet's sneaky hands are revealed. Very much like a puzzle that all comes seamlessly together, "Devil's Pass" wallows in formula before veering a sharp, hair-raising left turn just when the film needs it most.