Fans of a certain age and generation will be excited to learn that “The Dyatlov Pass Incident” marks the return after a quiet few years of director Renny Harlin, responsible for a variety of highly enjoyable and bombastic 1990s thrillers, including “Die Hard 2”, “Cliffhanger”, “The Long Kiss Goodnight” and shark schlocker “Deep Blue Sea”. Though enthusiasm for some might be damped by the fact that the film is yet another found footage outing, it does at least have a solid and intriguing premise, focusing on the curious events of 1959 in which a group of hikers went missing in the Ural Mountains of Russia. The nine were later found dead far from their camp, half dressed and suffering from violent injuries and having been inexplicably exposed to a high dose of radiation. Theories as to what happened have run rampant over the years since, ranging from alien abduction through to sinister military experiments, with the yeti being thrown in for good measure.
With the official Soviet explanation being that the deaths had been caused by “a compelling natural force”, the mysterious incident is certainly ripe for further exploration and the film attempts this by following a present day expedition by five US college students aimed at uncovering the truth. Making a documentary charting their experiences on the so-called Mountain of Death, the unfortunate gang soon find themselves beset by strange and increasingly threatening occurrences, leading to the expected dire consequences.
From early on, it’s pretty clear that “The Dyatlov Pass Incident” is not a serious stab at offering a genuine investigation into what happened, but, much like Harlin’s earlier works is a full-on piece of genre fun that concentrates on the entertainment factor rather than originality or reinvention. Certainly, the film is utterly familiar from start to finish, coming across as a snow-bound remake of “The Blair Witch Project”, right down to near-replications of some of its scenes of characters huddled in their tents at night and waking up to find odd things outside.
Though the ending is reasonably wild and wacky, the plot plays out entirely as expected, and there’s little in the way of actual tension (to be fair, it does at least partly sidestep this by opening with the statement the characters all died), as it’s signposted from early on exactly where things are going. Compared to something like Barry Levinson’s recent “The Bay”, there’s little attempt made to shake up the genre or to do anything new with the found footage form, Harlin throwing in the usual justifications as to why people keep shooting in the face of mortal terror, and employing many of the gags and tricks that have now been seen in countless genre films.
However, while unlikely to be winning any awards for creativity, “The Dyatlov Pass Incident” is a film which works surprisingly well, and for those not completely fed up with the found footage form, it’s definitely more than the sum of its parts. This is mainly down to the fact that Harlin is a director with not only more talent, but more resources available than most who tackle the genre, and aside from some shoddy CGI towards the end the film generally looks great. In this regard, the gorgeous snowy scenery is its real strength, making for a beautiful though harsh setting, and this goes some way to generating an eerie, ominous atmosphere throughout which Harlin successfully makes effective use of.
The cinematography and camerawork are way above average for this kind of thing, and while it all gets a bit frantic towards the end, there’s far less lurching and shaking than usual, and this allows for a greater focus on the story and a less distracting viewing experience. Despite having little in the way of real scares or shocks, there’s always plenty going on, and what it lacks in originality, the film makes up for on enthusiasm and effort, moving along at a fast pace with very little filler material.
Also of no small benefit is the fact that the acting is reasonably decent, the film not being plagued by the kind of grating performances seen in its lower-budgeted peers. Though the script is best described as basic, the cast of semi-familiar faces are all quite likeable, and the film manages some reasonably effective interplay and relationships between them. Of course, this isn’t enough to make the viewer actually care if they live or die, but there’s something to be said for watching a film where at least the cast aren’t hateful, nails on a blackboard types. This all adds to an overall sense of goofy fun, and there’s a Scooby Doo” kind of feel to the proceedings, none of the characters taking the expedition too seriously until it’s way too late.
“The Dyatlov Pass Incident” is considerably better than expected, and one of the most entertaining found footage films of the last few years. Renny Harlin does a fine job of nailing what made the form fun in the first place, and backed by some amazing scenery and a fascinating true story premise, the film makes for a solid amount of unpretentious enjoyment.
“The Dyatlov Pass Incident” (aka “Devil’s Pass”) will be screening at FrightFest ’13 on August 23rd.
Renny Harlin (director) / Vikram Weet (screenplay)
CAST: Richard Reid … Sgt. Smirnov
Gemma Atkinson … Denise Evers
Matt Stokoe … Jenson Day
Luke Albright … JP Hauser Jr.
Holly Goss … Holly King
Ryan Hawley … Andy Thatcher