Monday, April 7, 2014

Go Tell It On a Mountain

Renny Harlin will probably never win an Oscar, but the man's ability to craft true enjoyability onscreen is rivaled only by his ability to grow rock star-like golden locks. Between Deep Blue Sea, The Long Kiss Goodnight, and the often controversial (in horror nerd circles, that is) Nightmare On Elm Street 4: The Dream Master, Harlin is the kind of name that makes me think, 'eh, it's not going to be Shakespeare but I'll probably have a darn good time.'

Following in the footsteps of Barry Levinson's The Bay, Harlin headed up to the hills for Devil's Pass. Twelve production studio logos later, we watch:

Quick Plot: In 1959, a team of nine Russian hikers known as the Dyatlov Party headed up a mountain in the Ural chain only to be found dead of mysterious circumstances. Fifty years later, a team of Oregon college students decide to channel their inner Blair Witch Project to document their own investigation.

Surprise! They discover a happy polar utopia filled with friendly polar bears and displaced penguins. Everyone drinks hot chocolate and quotes A Muppet Family Christmas in between building snowmen and having ugly sweater contests.

Or, I don't know, their compasses freak out, avalanches attack, Russian soldiers turn mean, and Lost-like hatches reveal very bad, very CGI things.

Channeling some of his arctic Cliffhanger blood, director Renny Harlin is an odd choice to helm a found footage film, something that probably explains the screenwriter being Vikram West, a reality TV behind-the-scenes veteran. Harlin is a man who generally works with a heftier budget than your Grave Encounters and Skew crews can ever sell enough internal organs to earn. Found footage, of course, has primarily become the indie horror du jour because it doesn’t require Michael Bay money.  What it does require, however, can be just as tricky.

Found footage needs to justify its status as being found footage, which Devil’s Pass handles well. The film opens with international newsreels telling us the typical basics about a well-equipped team of young Americans mysteriously vanishing in the mountains, cutting to the early ‘we’re making a movie!’ interviews that set up their trip. It’s quickly revealed that the crew’s camera equipment was discovered and leaked online by hackers. Like many of its peers, Devil’s Pass can easily explain why the cameras were always running because hey, when you’re stranded in the middle of the Ural mountains, you need some kind of light source.

The other requirement of found footage involves casting. Here’s the thing about these kinds of films: they’re supposed to be as natural as can be. So here’s the thing about casting non-American actors to play Americans: they ain’t gonna be that natural. Poor British lead Holly Goss comes across as sounding like she has a speech impediment when trying to pronounce certain words. It’s problematic.

Looking--or listening--past that, Devil’s Pass somehow manages to work, and not work, work, and not. The arctic setting holds up its promise, while the threat of everything from a Russian government coverup to deadly radiation keeps things interesting. Ultimately, Devil’s Pass doesn’t quite stick its landing, but there are enough ups and downs to make the journey worth a hike.

High Points
I can’t fault any modern horror movie that finds a way to combine avalanches, time travel, yetis, monster people, and an arctic setting

Low Points
It just would have been nicer if the monster people part of the above statement didn’t feel like such obvious computerized additions to an otherwise real-feeling film

Lessons Learned
When traveling with a group of friends on a mysterious mission, resist the urge to take an adorable group photo just before takeout unless you want it to be prime motivation for an evil force to focus upon how happy you are before inevitable doom

Snow tigers are extinct

-17 degrees isn't THAT cold, so long as you're having sex in a tent


There's a lot of good and a lot of bad in Devil's Pass, something I come to expect from a Renny Harlin joint. Compared to many a found footage horror film, this one is certainly watchable and occasionally, quite enjoyable. There’s ultimately a lot of letdown in the overall execution, but for a good 90 minutes or so, Devil’s Pass is fun. Not Deep Blue Sea fun, but really, what is?

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