After a solid decade toiling in the lower depths of big-budget misfires (“Driven,” “Exorcist: The Beginning”) and barely released director-for-hire jobs (“Cleaner,” “5 Days of War”), Finnish action specialist Renny Harlin shows fitful signs of life in “Devil’s Pass,” the latest but not the least in the surfeit of found-footage horror pics that have become to today’s B-movie landscape what power-tool-wielding slasher flicks were to the 1980s. The third such “Blair Witch”/”Paranormal Activity” knockoff to arrive in nearly as many weeks (on the heels of the deplorable “Evidence” and the pretty good “Frankenstein’s Army”), Harlin’s low-budget tale of a film crew retracing the steps of a doomed skiing expedition doesn’t cover any new ground, but is made with just enough craft that, were you to stumble upon it late at night during a bout of insomnia, you wouldn’t mind watching through to the end.
Inspired by a real-life case that has, over the decades, grown into a hoodoo-laced old wives’ tale, “Devil’s Pass” offers its own fanciful spin on the 1959 “Dyatlov Pass Incident” (also the title under which the pic is being released internationally), in which nine Russian students on a ski trip across the Ural Mountains were found dead, having apparently fled their tents in the middle of the night, scantily clad, into sub-freezing temperatures. Adding to the intrigue, some of the bodies were badly bruised — one even missing its tongue — but the official investigation concluded that no foul play was involved, only a “compelling natural force.”
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In the half-century since, the Dyatlov deaths have proved catnip to conspiracy theorists, who have enhanced the story with salacious and most likely specious details (including supposed radioactive contamination on some of the victims) and claimed it as evidence of everything from a military cover-up to an alien invasion. Now Harlin and tyro screenwriter Vikram Weet sweeten the pot by proposing a possible link between Dyatlov and that undying American military conspiracy/hoax commonly known as the Philadelphia Experiment. And that’s just for starters.
The Dyatlov case is the supposed lifelong obsession of Holly (Holly Goss), a pert U. of Oregon psych student who, together with two film students — conspiracy-minded chatterbox Jenson (Matt Stokoe) and tomboyish audio engineer Denise (Gemma Atkinson) — plans to re-create the doomed expedition for her senior thesis. Which, it seems, the Oregon faculty thinks is a dandy idea. Also tagging along are a couple of seasoned guides in the form of preening alpha jock Andy (Ryan Hawley) and sensitive “Slaughterhouse Five”-reading rich kid JP (Luke Albright, who makes the biggest impression among the cast of newcomers). But no sooner has the pic introduced this lot than it cuts to Russian news footage of their icy corpses being hauled out of the same mountain pass as their predecessors — along with their cameras, the footage from which promptly goes viral thanks to a website ever so subtly named Conspira-leaks.
We then jump back in time to the start of the doomed journey, as seen through the eyes of the eventual victims — which, as in all movies of this ilk, amounts to a long, slow climb toward a hopefully gory/shocking/mildly diverting summit. Arriving in Russia, the crew briefly detours to a mental hospital said to house the one surviving member of the original expedition: Cue creepy old man in a window holding up a warning sign.
When the trek finally gets underway, things almost immediately start to go bump in the night — and sometimes in broad daylight. Is that merely the howling wind, or some sort of haunted ancestral growl echoing across the peaks? And who left those footprints outside everyone’s tents — the ones that abruptly disappear, as if their perpetrator had vanished into thin air? Because Harlin is a good technician and doesn’t overdo the you-are-there, shaky-cam pyrotechnics (there are supposed to be film students at the helm, after all), such scenes are slightly more bearable than they have any right to be. But even Harlin can’t figure out a way to make sudden video glitches and audio dropouts seem any scarier at this point than a creaking door in an old-fashioned analog horror pic.
When Salome does drop the proverbial seventh veil, during an extended sequence set inside a mysterious mountainside bunker, “Devil’s Pass” ekes out 10 minutes or so of mildly creepy tension, enhanced by some nifty creature effects and a few well-timed goosings of the audience’s nervous system. It’s cheesy enough fun while it lasts, but in the Harlin pantheon, it isn’t a patch on “Deep Blue Sea.” Then again, few things are.