‘Devil’s Pass’ (The Dyatlov Pass Incident) movie review: true-story* Russian horror

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In February, 1959, nine Russian hikers led by Igor Dyatlov disappeared into the Ural Mountains. Over the course of the next few months, their bodies were found; most were found undressed and had died of hypothermia, but others had fatal wounds, including crushed skulls and broken ribs, and no external injuries. One of the hikers was missing her tongue. Soviet investigators listed the cause of deaths as “a compelling unknown force.”

This is a fascinating story that has inspired countless conspiracy theories: to this day, the lack of actual evidence has led to some wildly divergent explanations, including UFOs, missile tests, and government cover-ups. It deserves serious exploration in a documentary or fictional feature. 

Unfortunately, that feature is not Renny Harlin’s The Dyatlov Pass Incident (later retitled Devil’s Pass), which uses the event as the backstory for a Blair Witch-like found footage flick involving a group of college students making a film about the incident; they travel to the Urals to try to uncover the mystery of the Dyatlov Pass.

Incident stars Holly Goss and Matt Stokoe as Holly and Jensen, two Oregon college students who decide to make a documentary about the incident (or more precisely, a documentary about their own investigation of the incident). To assist them in the mountains, they recruit experienced hikers Andy (Ryan Thawley) and JP (Luke Albright) along with sound girl Denise (Gemma Atkinson), who crowds every shot with her boom mike. 

Opening scenes cover the facts around the 1959 expedition, and detail the journey the students are about to take, before jumping forward a few weeks to news reports covering their disappearance; I worried the film would then follow yet a third group who go to look for the second one (a la Cannibal Holocaust), but no, the rest of the film is footage from their (presumably) recovered cameras.

It’s initially disappointing that the film follows this student investigation as opposed to the actual 1959 case – and largely ignores the facts in favour of wild conspiracy theories and a half-jokey tone – but the midsection generally works. As we follow the group from small town Russia up to their mountain trek through the snow-covered Urals, there’s a genuine sense of foreboding dread about what’s about to occur.

The culmination of that dread is where the film really screws up. The best of these films – notably The Blair Witch Project, but not limited to the found footage genre – work because of what they leave to the imagination; no amount of explanation is as what we create in our minds. 

But The Dyatlov Pass Incident explains…and explains…and explains, until all interest in the film is completely lost. The last 20 minutes of this film invokes wall-to-wall nonsense; by the time the Philadelphia Experiment comes into play, the movie has become a bad joke that trivializes the central incident it purports to investigate. 

Notably bad: CGI so cartoonish it feels like it belongs in a decade-old video game. 

Renny Harlin was once Hollywood’s next big action director, following Die Hard 2 and Cliffhanger, but quickly lost favor after Cutthroat Island and The Long Kiss Goodnight tanked at the box office; his last six films, starting with Mindhunters in 2004, have barely received a theatrical release, and this one looks like no exception.

It’s opened in Russia and a few other countries, but has yet to secure a US release date (side note: at an opening night, 20:00 screening, I was literally the only person in attendance. First time that has happened.)

Harlin still knows how to make movies, however, and The Dyatlov Pass Incident is reasonably well-constructed on what must have been a miniscule budget; it’s also refreshing to see fluid camerawork and editing in a found footage film.

Still, the result – and especially the finale – is entirely underwhelming, and almost completely devoid of scares. And anyone looking for insight into the actual case will be doubly disappointed.

The Dyatlov Pass Incident

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Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky has been writing about the Prague film scene and reviewing films in print and online media since 2005. A member of the Online Film Critics Society, you can also catch his musings on life in Prague at expats.cz and tips on mindfulness sourced from ancient principles at MaArtial.com.

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