Movie Review: 'Donner Pass'


There are few true-life "legends" that are as fitting to a horror film as the infamous "Donner Party." As you probably know, a group of settlers in 1846 got stuck in the mountains of Sierra Nevada and resorted to murder and cannibalism to survive. So while there is a large thread of fact that cuts through the various pop-culture renditions of this story, these days the Donner Party is remembered as a tragic mistake, a disturbing reminder of how close we are to beasts, and how great it is to have cars and airplanes nowadays. (Jokes aside, there was an indie film a few years back -- called simply The Donner Party -- that did a decent job of trying to color within the lines of historical fact.) The film we're here to discuss, however, is in no way based on fact. It's actually just a basic little slasher indie called Donner Pass that, despite its meager budget and frequently familiar trappings, manages to inject a little energy and color into a sub-genre that's more or less a monstrous cliche by now.

To its credit, the scrappy little horror flick does open with the actual Donner party... but then we promptly jump into modern times, and guess what? We're with a group of obnoxious teenagers who are, all together now, heading up to an isolated cabin in order to drink, smoke, and possibly screw. So clearly you can already tell that much of Donner Pass is a very conventional slasher flick that, to its credit, borrows a bit from the history books in an effort to add some natural creepiness to its set-up. But for all its stock ideas and simplistic characters and low-budget deficits, there's still a welcome sense of quality control -- which is to say the film looks like it was made inexpensively, but it doesn't look cheap -- in addition to a handful of solid (enough) performances, and a surprisingly sly screenplay that gives us some diverting stuff to chew on while we're waiting for the nasty parts to show up.

Director Elise Robertson and screenwriter R. Scott Adams seem alternately happy to color within the lines of the slasher genre, but every once in a while Donner Pass throws out a clever dialogue exchange, an unexpected plot contortion, or a nasty bout of physical violence. (Let's not forget that our characters are partying in a part of the country known for a legend about cannibalism.) It also brings a welcome sense of female power to a generally male-dominated genre, but it does so in a smartly matter-of-fact fashion ... plus most of the men in the film are downright morons, and that makes things a little more fun.

Certainly not the most unique indie horror flick you'll find on the VOD streams, Donner Pass is considerably better than many of its limited-budget brethren, simply because it has a mildly cool hook, a mostly game cast, a pace that starts out a little slow but really picks up some steam, and an affection for the old-school practical-gore stalk 'n' slice we all know and love. In relation to most of the American "direct-to-video" horror indies that Donner Pass will soon reside next to, it's actually quite a quiet little winner.