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I wanted so much for Devil’s Pass (2013) to be good. I have a fondness for mountaineering disaster movies, and this one seemed to have a lot of potential. It’s directed by Renny Harlin, it centers on the real-life unexplained deaths of nine skiers in 1959, and it flew mostly under the radar when it was released. Now that I’ve seen it, unfortunately I understand why.
First, the good parts. The basic storyline is interesting and creepy: five college students, led by Holly (Holly Goss), trek into the Ural Mountains to make a documentary about the Dyatlov Pass Incident—in which nine skiers died in 1959 without any survivors or witnesses—and hopefully discover what killed them. (The number of bodies found comes into question early on – that will be important later.) Despite the many eye-rolling explanations – aliens, the Yeti, a government conspiracy – posited early in the film, I was genuinely surprised by what the danger turned out to be, and I was creeped out by the way it was revealed. This has the bones of a good horror movie.
Which is a shame, because it has the muscles and skin and organs of a warmed-over Blair Witch Project ripoff. Too many elements of the film seem calculated to appeal to the lowest common denominator. Case in point: the title. No one says the phrase “devil’s pass” at any point during the film. It must have played better with test audiences than The Dyatlov Pass Incident, which was the original title, but it feels like it belongs to a different film.
The decision to make Ms. Goss’s character American is also baffling. I couldn’t find any information about where she’s actually from, so I don’t know what her real accent sounds like. But it couldn’t have been worse than her American accent, which is dreadful to the point that it distracts from the movie. And to what end? It wouldn’t have changed the story or even required an explanation for her to speak in her normal accent, whatever that is.
The first half of the film is chockablock with worn-out horror tropes, which I tried to excuse as “just what you do in horror movies.” Later I rethought this knee-jerk response. Whether or not there’s any inherent virtue in populating your film with cocky oversexed adolescents who think they’re invincible and won’t be missed when they’re killed off, I don’t think it adds anything here. Nothing unpredictable or eerie or even ominous happens in the first half of the movie. Holly gathers her crew and they all gallivant into the mountains, making sure to document every second of their boorish American antics and hamfisted attempts at flirting. Many terrible theories about what happened to the skiers in 1959 are floated and discarded. The self-documentary device is occasionally abandoned and then picked up again with no explanation.
And then something amazing happens: the movie actually gets scary. The avalanche scene at the halfway point is beautifully executed and truly terrifying. Right before this, Holly and another hiker find the beginning of an answer in the snow, and that surprised me too. I started paying attention again. What I like about the film’s explanation for what happened to the hikers is that it takes them the whole rest of the movie to unravel it. Someone took the time to come up with a truly ingenious solution to this problem, and it takes our protagonists many scary steps to get to the bottom of it, not because they’re stupid or because we’re being manipulated, but because the solution is not a simple or comforting one.
A great deal of care went into this story, which is why it deserves better than the video-game-style special effects in the action sequence in the third act, or the completely unnecessary epilogue. In all seriousness, I recommend that you watch this movie and turn it off before the real ending. About 88 minutes in (or twelve minutes from the end), there’s a long, still shot with the camera lying in the snow and several characters making a discovery. Right at the moment when one of them picks up the camera, hit Stop and pretend the movie ended there. Or watch the rest and explain to me why the final ten minutes are necessary, because to me they seem to completely deflate all the menace and creepiness the film had built up.
Devil’s Pass’s real problem is that it wants to live in two different, mutually exclusive worlds. It wants the charm of a low-budget indie horror with the special effects and spectacle of a summer blockbuster. Committing to either of these would have improved the film immensely. As it is, I found myself simultaneously annoyed by its lack of conviction and wistful for the eerie, atmospheric horror film it could have been.
– Ashley Wells watches too many movies and welcomes recommendations for more. Leave her one here or on Twitter: @ashleybwells. Spoiler alert: she has already seen Troll 2.