Remember when director Renny Harlin was pretty awesome? Sure he hasn’t really made a masterpiece or reached the level of someone like John Carpenter, but he sure did direct a lot of fun movies: A Nightmare on Elm Street 4, Die Hard 2, Cliffhanger, The Long Kiss Goodnight, and Deep Blue Sea. Even Mindhunters is solid brainless entertainment.
What happened to that guy? The less said about The Covenant, 12 Rounds, and 5 Days of War, the better. His latest, Devil’s Pass (IFC releases it in select theaters and on VOD August 23), is not a return to form. It has far more in common with his recent work than his early career. Renny has lost his groove.
It’s a shame, because the premise has so much potential. It is based on a true story. Back in 1959, nine Russian hikers were found dead in a remote part of the Ural Mountains, a remote part of Russia. To this day no one knows what really happened to them. It seems that the most common theory is that hypothermia killed them, but rumors range from aliens to the military to the supernatural. Plus, some of the bodies had skull fractures despite a total lack of external trauma, and one hiker had their tongue removed.
Flash forward to 2012. A student at the University of Oregon, Holly (Holly Goss), randomly stumbled upon the story of the dead hikers. She applied for and received a grant that will allow her to travel to the Ural Mountains and investigate what happened. She recruits a crew of four to join her: a filmmaker and conspiracy theorist; an audio/visual technician; and two experienced hikers/guides.
The group travels to Russia and finds the exact location where the bodies were found. By then, strange things have already started to happen, and once they reach the site the strangeness only increases. At this point in the action, Devil’s Pass is awfully familiar. The youngsters are told to stay away by an old guy in a psychiatric facility. Group members start to fight with one another. Unexplainable events, like massive footprints in the snow that do not begin or end anywhere, begin to occur. Everyone talks to the camera and Holly, the leader, forces them to solider on after everyone else decides they have had enough.
There’s also plenty of annoying shaky-cam and instances of people continuing to film long after anyone with half a brain would drop the camera and run like hell. At one point the group is being shot at, and the camera continues to roll.
All of that would be acceptable if the payoff was good. The characters discuss a plethora of possibilities. The military or the government, Yeti, aliens. I won’t spoil it except to say that it is totally ludicrous and stupid, and instantly and drastically changes the movie, not for the better. What had been a pretty grounded endeavor becomes nonsensical and silly. There’s a lot of CGI. The last 20 or so minutes are off the rails and really, really bad.
Devil’s Pass wastes an interesting premise and has little to offer. There’s a tense, late-night avalanche that is effectively staged, and right before you find out what is really going on, there’s a scene in a mysterious place hidden in the mountains that is suspenseful for a minute or two before everything goes bonkers. And that’s about it. It’s almost worth seeing just to witness how crazy it gets, but be warned, you’ll probably end up angrily shouting at the screen.