There was a question raised in Diabolique Magazine’s interview with the cast of Renny Harlin’s latest film, Devil’s Pass: In the horror genre, what happens when twenty-somethings seek out adventure in a mysterious land? And we all know the answer, ultimately “nothing good”. However, the question for so-called “found footage films” like the Devil’s Pass should more succinctly ask fans of the horror genre, what happens when a director does a found footage film about twenty-somethings filming their adventure in a mysterious land? Overall, the role of an increasingly film savvy audience is beginning to affect the kinds of choices filmmakers can make, a theme often reflected in genre revisionist films like as Scream and Cabin in the Woods.
What holds back the found footage ‘genre’ of horror films is that you get the standard attempt at real world intertextuality that now feels a bit too overdone. Just as every rebooted superhero franchise needs to do an origin when mass audiences are already familiar with the cultural product (e.g. A dumb reboot move: man + radioactive spider = Spiderman. Duh…), so too must this kind of genre film go through the same rigmarole. It’s one of the real drawbacks to the form, a fact which Renny Harlin himself acknowledged in an earlier interview with Diabolique: “After putting the script together, putting all the financing together, after making the movie, all that took [a great deal of] time. So by the time the movie’s coming out, there’s been like 180 million found footage movies! When we were starting it was a pretty fresh thing. Of course, Blair Witch happened years ago, but in terms of the wave of other found footage movies, there hadn’t been that many.”
However, moviegoers more adept to the nature of screenwriting may see a premise as nothing more than that, and derive pleasure from the journey of the characters through the narrative. This is true for Devil’s Pass. Once the viewer gets beyond the contrived set-up that comes with the use of the found footage convention, Harlin is able to throw his characters into the actual Dyatlov Pass region where something remarkably unique starts to happen. At that moment, Renny Harlin’s arctic journey through the Devil’s Pass mounts up and succeeds in becoming a genuinely interesting story.
Part I Am Legend, part The Mist, Harlin’s narrative is able to do some unusual and intriguing things in spite of issues one finds in the first act. One such issue harkens back to what the oft labeled “hacky” screenwriter Blake Snyder wrote in his notorious book, Save The Cat. Snyder quotes Steven Spielberg cautioning him never to use the press in his scripts, as their mere presence tends to ruin immediacy and intimacy within stories. Snyder claims it was the reason Spielberg provided for not including public outcry to the existence of alien life in E.T. The backdrop of the press only does three things in Devil’s Pass: demonstrate the American coverage vs. the Russian coverage, introduce the audience to the original Dyatlov story, and show footage leaked onto the Internet by inexplicable hackers. All of which feel necessary due to the found footage format, but choices one wishes could have been done differently. Had the American news been more accusatory of the Russian coverage, than perhaps the suggestion of a potential cover-up would have had a greater impact on the film’s conclusion.
This basic found footage setup also lends itself to several issues within Devil’s Pass. Who runs the sound once the sound person is killed? How do these five American strangers just walk into a bar near Russia’s Far North and not only does everyone there speak English, but a random guy is generous enough to give them a ride without much interaction whatsoever? More importantly, how none of them would think to bring along somebody who actually speaks the local language is something of a mystery. Perhaps this goes to the naïve and willful spirit of young Americans, five of them that epitomize in various ways commonly perceived archetypes of our millennial generation: the stoner philosopher, the terminally hip cameraman forever trapped in the dreaded “friend zone” with the all-American female lead, and so on. A spirit which also echoes in the film is the real life Dyatlov group who ventured into the Arctic with similar ambitions. But there is humor in the subtleties of this casts’ performances, particularly with such lines as “Snow tigers are freaking extinct, genius!” and “He’s the master of the trail hook up”. Lines that with a lesser cast would come off as not charming and patently forced.
One wonders if movies like these are going to be harder and harder to make the further we move from standard definition DV tape culture. Maybe we’ll see different kinds of distortion by way of corrupted files on hard drives, playing scrambled images of demons leering through the glitches. Until filmmakers really figure out that the effects will only seem more tacked on and cheesy. Although the film utilizes shaky camera techniques, the bleak backdrop of the Arctic Circle is so expansive it would be impossible to diminish even with such surreptitiously used camera techniques. The scenery is so vast and desolate, one cannot help but feel the otherworldly realm Harlin creates depicting the frigid ninth circle of hell on earth.
When asked about what attracted him so much to the project, Harlin’s indicated that it was very personal passion project. “It was this story that I found very fascinating, and then just the idea of making a found footage movie.” Quite honestly, it is hard to see the movie being done any other way. The sense of dread found in Harlin’s Devil’s Pass feels very different from his big-budget blockbuster work: “…so [on one end there are your] very low- budget but very real, real kind of horror films… What I love to see or to do is more like a ‘70s horror film, where they had actors like Gregory Peck and Lee Remick or whoever in these thrillers or horror films or like in Rosemary’s Baby or something… [they were] actually really great actors, like movie stars and [the films had] great production values and really good scripts…”
Devil’s Pass may not be new and innovative in form or its use of conventions, but offers up a different and welcoming take on narrativity within the found footage genre. Veering far from narrative structure may seem like new territory for someone like Renny Harlin who has made his career largely out of making Hollywood movies with your typical A-B-C-D linear narrative story structure.
In this way, Devil’s Pass is a huge success, as it raises questions that keep the viewer wondering. After the eventual climb up the steep, the roller coaster ride finally begins and keeps the audience guessing all while they watch the characters deteriorate one by one. In this respect it is reminiscent of Harlin’s 1993 film, Cliffhanger, only here the exotic location takes on even more of an adversarial role as the bizarre happenings within the inescapable nether-zone are as elementally dangerous as they are psychologically constraining. It is at this point that Renny’s intentions thankfully become clear: this film is about the world of the Dyatlov Pass’s mysterious past, and about the potentiality of horror lost in a place that seems forgotten by time and forsaken by God, and for good reason!
The logic behind a lot of these movies deals with the exoticism of certain foreign countries or foreign places. Look at such movies as Hostel. But it’s also just great to feel the tension of young people breaking in extreme circumstance. It’s relatable, it’s intense, and creates suspense. Ultimately, If you liked the Chernobyl Diaries and are nostalgic of films utilizing the United States Cold War attitudes toward the former Soviet Union and the current state of eastern Europe, then you’ll love this found footage film with an all-too-familiar set up. Naysayers will see the inevitable pitfalls with the found footage premise as a hindrance to the film from the get go. Others will find themselves mid-way into the second act peeking up to ask even more questions about the movie, which is exactly what Mr. Harlin intended. But if you’re looking for something fun and interesting, a new turn within the exhaustive pantheon of found footage horror films, then Devil’s Pass is the ride for you.
– By Josef Luciano