The Dyatlov Pass Incident (aka Devil’s Pass) first published by Grolsch FilmWorks
In early February 1959, nine experienced hikers all died on Kholat Syakhtl (‘The Mountain of the Dead’ in the local Mansi language) in the Urals. All had fled their tent in a hurry, tearing their way out rather than using the entrance. Most were in a state of (relative) undress, and succumbed to hypothermia – but several had severe internal injuries (with no corresponding external injuries), and showed abnormal levels of radiation. One was missing her tongue. To this day, no conclusive explanation has been found, although plenty have been offered, including avalanche, hypothermic ‘paradoxical undressing’, Soviet cover-up of secret military base, attack by local tribes (or even yeti)…
This bizarre real-life mystery is used as the palimpsest for (mostly) contemporary found-footage thrills in Renny Harlin’s The Dyatlov Pass Incident (aka Devil’s Pass), as a group of five fresh-faced Oregon students disappear while making an investigative documentary on the doomed expedition, leaving only their digital cameras behind with a story of history repeating itself.
On the tapes, we see psychology major Holly King (Holly Goss) and film student/conspiracy theorist Jenson Day (Matt Stokoe) experiencing an uncanny sense of déjà vu in their snowy surroundings – a sense perhaps shared by anyone who has seen The Blair Witch Project or its many imitators. In the meantime, rakish Andy (Ryan Hawley) and pneumatic Denise (Gemma Atkinson) are busy becoming the shoot’s first (but not last) ‘trail hookup’, while JP (Luke Albright) sits around the campfire reading Kurt Vonnegut’s ominously titled and thematically related novel of twentieth-century trauma and time travel, Slaughterhouse 5. Yet even as these five retrace the steps of the doomed 1959 expedition, they find that someone – or something – is following them too, leaving its own footprints (and someone else’s tongue) behind. And so Holly finds herself drawn, irresistibly and Oedipally, towards the realisation of a recurring nightmare.
To reveal much more would be to spoil – but suffice it to say that even if you find the first half of The Dyatlov Pass Incident a bit of a trek through overfamiliar found-footage tropes, there is plenty of compensation in the spectacular mountain scenery (from the director who previously brought us Cliffhanger), and the ending is batshit enough to throw even the most experienced horror-hikers for a (literal) loop. As a solution to a genuine Soviet-era mystery (and a unifying theory of virtually every paranormal activity ever), it leaves Occam’s razor out in the cold – but as a clever, confounding trip through some of the more unusual events of the last hundred years, it gets these students more than just a pass. Best of all, while first-time writer Vikram Weet’s screenplay is very tightly constructed, it does not spoonfeed or pander, ensuring that all the paradoxical plotting will continue its hermeneutic striptease in your head both before and after the film is over.
© Anton Bitel