Sunday, October 27, 2013

The Dyatlov Pass Incident (2013)

aka Devil's Pass

Warning: while I'm not going into too much detail here, there will still be spoilers!

The by now proverbial group of student filmmakers (Holly Goss, Matt Stokoe, Luke Albright, Gemma Atkinson and Ryan Hawley) mysteriously disappears while trying to shoot a documentary solving the mystery of the Dyatlov Pass Incident. The footage we see is of course supposed to be the footage the students shot, freed from Russian military servers by hacktivists.

Turns out that, not surprisingly, the group's project did not stand under a good star, particularly once they set out in the direction of the Pass. Early on, still on their way to the pass, they are disturbed by curious bare footsteps in the snow around their tents, as well as by a mouth-less tongue lying around. Once they arrive at the place where the 1959 expedition died, things really get freaky, and soon, secret history starts repeating itself, or in a certain way actually starts happening.

For the first fifty or so minutes of its running time, Renny "Where Did I Go Wrong?" Harlin's Dyatlov Pass Incident (I disapprove of the Devil's Pass title that suggests an assumption of audience stupidity from the producers) plays like a slicker version of your typical POV horror movie, just one with more snow (snow makes everything better), not very shaky camera, sometimes suspiciously good camera angles on the action, and simple yet deft characterisation. Consequently, I made the rather obvious assumption that the rest of the movie was going to consist of tearful monologues into the camera, lots of running around in the dark, and screaming.

We do in fact get a bit of running around and screaming, yet Harlin goes for a somewhat different end game, replacing the more sub-genre typical inexplicable mystery with a big wallop of Forteana highly appropriate for something called The Dyatlov Pass Incident, a small bit of conspiracy thriller flair (it's not a Harlin movie when nobody shoots a gun, after all), and characters who actually fight for their lives (which is a bit more improbable than the usual POV horror whimpering messes but makes for a nice change anyway).

Sure, the hokum Harlin uses is far from original but it actually makes sense in the context of the movie, and sets up the thing POV horror very seldom has: a traditional ending that ties up most of the plot's loose ends and that leaves the audience with a pretty good picture of what has been going on. Now, while I love some mystery and weirdness in my endings, a lot of POV movies in the last few years seem to have used that sort of ending as an excuse not to have to think about what's going on in them, not caring if the open ending actually fits what came before in what it is difficult not to call cargo cult scriptwriting. Harlin's ending, on the other hand, actually fits his film well, while still suggesting some rather unpleasant ideas about the way the universe his characters live in (or not) works. Even better, if you think a little about what has happened in the movie after you have understood what's going on, there's a strong suggestion of a Lovecraftian universe at play here, even without tentacles, and a pessimism that has a lot more in common with 70s horror than most contemporary films that often don't seem to mean their kicker endings and only use them because they are a convention of the genre.

On the visual side, Harlin is clearly a friend of the philosophy I've seen in a few of the more recent POV horror films that an audience should get a good look at the interesting stuff in a film even when it is supposedly shot by amateurs. It works well for Dyatlov Pass Incident, even though the film's monsters do look a bit too much like cheaper, more aggressive versions of Gollum, or like less believable versions of the creatures in Neil Marshal's The Descent. There are some rather clever camera set-ups, and one or two moments in the film's last stages where the camera work will stretch belief to the breaking point for viewers who want their POV horror movies to be realistic instead of right. Harlin's action movie past shows itself in his very un-POV horror sense of pacing where every scene has (quite appropriately, one would think) an actual function in the movie, which again, is more "right" than it is "realistic".

I really enjoyed myself with The Dyatlov Pass Incident, certainly because I'm always happy with POV horror that tries to add some variation to the style, but also because Harlin is just a fine storyteller.

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