Thursday, October 23, 2014

30 Days of Nightmares #23: DEVIL'S PASS (2013)

The Story: One night in February 1959, nine hikers mysteriously died in the northern Ural mountains of Siberia. Investigators were unable to determine the cause(s) of death, but two of the victims suffered fractured skulls and two had broken ribs.  Also, the hikers appeared to have torn open their tents and run out into the snow, barefoot.  Why?  Russian investigators couldn't find any answers, so they restricted the area to public access, prompting much speculation and building the legend of the "Dyatlov Pass incident."  DEVIL'S PASS is about a group of reckless college students who decide to follow in the footsteps of the dead hikers... and, of course, document their adventure for posterity.  Because, ever since THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, that's what reckless college students do.

Expectations: The first thing that intrigued me about this found footage flick is the fact that Renny Harlin directed it.  Horror geeks like me will always remember him for A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 4: THE DREAM MASTER, but his real claim to fame is a string of memorable (if not all praise-worthy) action movies: DIE HARD 2, THE ADVENTURES OF FORD FAIRLANE, CLIFFHANGER, THE LONG KISS GOODNIGHT, DEEP BLUE SEA, etc.  Then he made that godawful EXORCIST prequel.  Since then he's had a slightly lower profile, but has it really come to this?  Banished to found footage movies?

The other thing that appealed to me about DEVIL'S PASS was similarities--at least on the surface--to a few other stories I have loved, namely Jon Kracauer's book Into Thin Air, the 2003 documentary TOUCHING THE VOID, and the (non-found footage) indie horror flick YELLOWBRICKROAD.   The first two are truly harrowing, and deeply human, stories of survival.  The third is a modern-day TWILIGHT ZONE episode that draws its strength from our undying fascination with the Great Unknown.   

Reaction: For the first two-thirds of its running time, this is basically BLAIR WITCH with snow (and the threat of a Yeti instead of a witch).  The characters, led by an overambitious female director, bicker much like the characters in BLAIR WITCH, but their search is less interesting and the dangers less tangible... which is very surprising since they're hiking in the mountains of Siberia, not just wandering through the woods in Maryland.  The hardships and grandeur of nature are not much considered.... until the end of the second act, when the characters experience a terrifying avalanche in the middle of the night and are forced to take shelter in a mysterious underground bunker.  At that point, the movie ceases to be a mediocre version of BLAIR WITCH.  And becomes a mediocre version of THE DESCENT. 

Most Nightmare-Worthy Moment: The sound of the avalanche--combined with one brief shot of the mountains moving in the darkness--made my stomach turn.  And, honestly, those first few minutes in the tunnel were truly terrifying, because I had no idea what was down there.  Then the filmmaker opted to show exactly what was down there, and I got bored again.  I probably should have just watched TOUCHING THE VOID.  Even though it's not a horror movie, it's still a better psychological horror movie.

PS: If you're looking for real-world inspiration for an indie horror film, try THIS

PPS: While I'm griping about found footage movies, check out this short film that some friends of mine made...

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