What began as a clever idea cooked up by filmmakers with more ingenuity than production money has now become a low-budget playground for filmmakers of every race, creed, nationality, and age bracket. We're talking (once again) about "found footage" horror cinema, that recently omnipresent filmmaking presentation that asks the viewer to "buy" that they're watching actual video material.
Although largely the domain of independents both American (The Blair Witch Project, Paranormal Activity, Grave Encounters) and imported (Troll Hunter, [REC], Lake Mungo), the "found footage" hook has also enticed filmmakers as varied as Matt Reeves (Cloverfield), George Romero (Diary of the Dead), and Barry Levinson (The Bay). So clearly there's something about the gimmick that appeals to filmmakers and film watchers in equal measure, and now we have another veteran ready to take a swing at the format.
The mostly conventional but still rather intriguing Devil's Pass (aka The Dyatlov Pass Incident on the festival circuit) comes from good ol' Renny Harlin, the rather unpredictable Finnish director who brought us Die Hard 2, Cliffhanger, Deep Blue Sea, Mindhunters, and 12 Rounds, among others. Those (like me) who devour just about any found footage-style horror flick they can get their eyeballs on will no doubt find a lot of familiar components in Devil's Pass, but a game cast -- and just enough novelty in the plot (and location) department -- prevent the film from becoming just another carbon copy.
The story follows five attractive young American filmmakers who travel deep into the foreboding mountains of Northern Russia to chart the course of a 1959 expedition that ended with nine people dead. And not just from frostbite, either. Suffice to say that there's enough mystery surrounding the decades-old "Dyatlov Pass Incident" to keep director Holly King and her four-person crew interested -- but after a (perhaps slightly overlong) set-up, Harlin and first-time screenwriter Vikram Weet manage to find their way, employ a truly ominous location, and deliver a few weird surprises you might not see coming.
If Devil's Pass suffers from one glaring issue, it's that it follows the Blair Witch Project formula to an almost slavish degree. We even have a second act breakdown from our director in which she weeps and apologizes for all her unthinking hubris. Again, the cast, the locale, and the promise of an interesting couple of twists prevent Devil's Pass from becoming too familiar or tiresome, but at certain points the flick feels like little more than The Siberian Witch Project.
Whether the payoffs in Devil's Pass come off as novel or ridiculous depends on the individual viewer, of course, but for a movie that offers a familiar premise in a fresh location, it does manage to throw in a few twisted little curve-balls towards the end. At the very least, Devil's Pass stands as further evidence that seasoned directors enjoy the found footage gimmick as much as the first-timers seem to, and that they can turn out a simple but crafty little horror tale when they feel like it.