Whatever happened to Renny Harlin, anyway? Back in the late ’80s/early ’90s he was slated to be the “next big thing” and helmed both blockbuster fare like Die Hard 2 and supposed-to-be-blockbuster fare like The Adventures Of Ford Fairline, but the colossal tanking the latter took at the box office not only torpedoed the career of its nominal “star,” Andrew Dice Clay (thankfully — unless you think “jokes” like “Hickory Dickory Dock, suck my dick!” are funny), but also tarnished Harlin’s reputation as Hollywood’s next wunderkind, as well. Before you know it, he’s reduced to the likes of The Exorcist : The Beginning and Mindhunters, I guess he’s finally bottomed out and returned to his low-budget horror roots (if you’ll recall, his “breakthrough” feature was A Nightmare On Elm Street Part Four), and everything’s sorta come full circle. But did he learn anything from his meteoric rise and even more meteoric (albeit much longer, given that it’s well into its third decade now) fall?
Actually, it’s hard to say. His latest — 2013’s Devil’s Pass (available, as per our theme for this month, via Netflix instant streaming) is certainly better than a lot of other “found footage” horror flicks out there, but ya know what? It’s worse than a lot of other examples of the genre, as well, and I oughtta know because I’ve found myself watching literally dozens of ’em lately.
What it has going for it is a pretty nifty premise, as four college kids from the University of Oregon (all somewhat stereotypical “granola” types that, let’s be honest, aren’t too hard to find out in Eugene) score themselves a grant to re-visit the site of the infamous Dyatlov Pass Incident (which is, perhaps not so surprisingly, the title this flick was released under overseas), a mysterious chapter in Russian history that saw a group of nine hikers meet a bizarre and grisly end in the Ural Mountains in 1959. There were numerous signs indicating that something truly inexplicable took place, but the Soviet government — not exactly known for being all that forthcoming in those days — quickly deemed that they’d all died of natural causes, and put a tight clamp on any further flow of information.
Needless to say, this has resulted in all kinds of conspiracy theorizing over the years, with every possible explanation you can think of from an avalanche to a yeti to sudden mass hysteria/insanity to aliens being mentioned by folks who have studied the case. Psychology student Holly (played by Holly Goss) seems downright obsessed with finding out what happened, and has enlisted her camera operator/ tin-foil-hat-wearing pal Jensen (Matt Stokoe), experienced hiker/annoying bundle of testosterone Andy (Ryan Hawley), rich kid /pseudo-intellectual trail guide JP (Luke Albright) and hottie-with-a-tomboy-streak audio engineer Denise (Gemma Atkinson) to come on along on her crazy adventure.
Harlin keeps the “shaky-cam” nonsense to a minimum here, and things have a pretty professional appearance — helped in no small measure by the breathtaking authentic Russian filming locations. And the story is paced out pretty nicely and manages to keep you reasonably interested, if not exactly enthralled. But the performances are a real uneven mix, with only Albright really turning in compelling work, while Goss,who’s asked to carry most of the load here, obviously could use some more acting lessons. It probably doesn’t help much that all the characters are one-dimensional ciphers, but shit — we’ve seen that in a number of “mockumentary”-style horrors, and it’s not always such a bad thing. Here, no one really manages to rise above the “entitled hippie college kid you wouldn’t mind seeing die” level.
Still, Harlin and screenwrtiter Vikrama Weet have a few neat tricks up their sleeve, such as tying the disappearance of the Dyaltlov party in with — bizarre as it sounds — the US Navy’s infamous “Philadelphia Experiment,” having their hapless cast find a bunker buried in the side of the mountain, and — right near the very end — treating us to some crazy-ass cool creature effects. The plot ends up moving in a direction you sure can’t predict going in , and while it’s not all that logical (or even smartly handled), it’s at least surprising. That in itself is worthy of —- well, shit, not exactly praise, I guess, but at least a mention. So I’m mentioning it.
I’ll give Harlin “props” for managing to wrangle a few last-minute scares out of his movie just before it ends, too, but if you’ve had it up to here with watching pseudo-film students get in over their heads in spooky situations, then it may be a case of “too little, too late” for you by then. If you still, against all odds, are able to find this sort of thing reasonably compelling at times, then you’ll be glad you stuck with it for the payoff.
Come to think of it, maybe that’s the best way to look at Devil’s Pass as a whole — if you’re sick to death of these “found footage” movies, you’re not going to find much to re-invigorate your lost (assuming you ever had any) enthusiasm for them here, despite the the fact that Harlin shows quite a few flashes of still being able to competently construct things on a visual level. But if you continue to have at least a small amount of patience for/and or interest in this often-maligned (sometimes fairly, sometimes not) subgenre, then this offers decent amount of evidence that it may still have at least a little bit of mileage left in it yet.