I am no fan of found footage movies. Don’t misunderstand me – I respect the genre, which is quite old and draws from a deep well. The earliest quasi-reality horrors emerged in the Sixties under the banner of mondo films. These would boldly splice real and fake footage together for whatever purpose they had in mind. The most infamous was Cannibal Holocaust, which is in a sense is the originator of the ‘found footage’ genre. Later its scion The Blair Witch Project would bring the sub genre solidly from a video nasty to mainstream method and since then there has been a never-ending stream of ‘found footage’ films. Some were disasters, others fantastic.
My problem with the genre is mainly one of taste. All too often the narrative suffers. Most recently Willow Creek demonstrated that you can literally have characters talk nonsense and do little, then deliver some nerve-fraying moments before accomplishing pretty much nothing at the end. That is the biggest pitfall of ‘found footage’: it is so easy to get lost around narrative and building moments that you forget that audiences need a story.
With this we come to The Devil’s Pass, also called The Dyatlov Pass Incident. In many ways it is an exact ‘found footage’ movie, complete with the tropes: a group of eager documentarians headed into a hostile place with far too little training and way too much naivety. Their leader is fearless, driven and hopelessly out of her depth – the inevitable breakdown (or what I’d like to call the ‘snot on camera’ moment ala. Blair Witch) follows. Ominous warnings about their destination are everywhere and strangers all too eager to help also appear. Even the obligatory “what the f*** was that?” with camera swinging wildly moments are in place.
If this was all that The Devil’s Pass had to offer, there’d be no review here. But it had a reputation for being good and I was intrigued enough to give it a go. I’ll be honest – I was ready to turn it off in ten minutes, at least partly because the people I was watching with dislike ‘found footage’ stuff even more than I do and were bound to protest. I had also made them watch Willow Creek and some of the Paranormal Activity movies, so they had reasons to feel begrudged. And yet nobody complained. The Devil’s Pass is actually quite fun, even for people who loathe the genre.
A team of University students head off to a very remote part of Russia, to a place called ‘Mountain of Death’ where decades previously a team of researchers died in mysterious circumstances. The remains of their exuberant camera work is all that was found and the movie represents an edit of what happened to them. But unlike similar films, a lot of through was given about how the cameras can be used. The movie’s first act is a mixture of this footage and news broadcasts laying out the scene. It’s flashy, but the buy-in for audiences is much easier and more palatable. By the time we settle into actual found footage territory, you are very curious about what is going on.
The film takes advantage of this, using clever tricks and camera angles to both create a coherent picture and not lose sight that it is a ‘found footage’ film. So cameras don’t appear in bizarre places, nor do the shots feel clumsy – as if the camera had been mounted on the head of a dog. This even manages to dodge that third sin of ‘found footage’: overkill. Though the thought is hard to avoid, you never quite feel like these characters are just filming too many damn things. A nice balance is struck and this is what makes The Devil’s Pass a much better experience than 99 percent of its peers.
It’s not perfect – the final plot is a little confusing, though should be applauded for its creativity. But where it lacks coherency, The Devil’s Pass uses style. This is at its heart a good old ‘make you jump’ horror, particularly the last act, and earns its credentials as a scary movie. But above all it’s a ‘found footage’ movie that non-genre fans can enjoy without reinventing the wheel, so genre fanatics will also be happy. Look, if you completely and utterly hate ‘found footage’ films, this won’t sway you. If Blair Witch didn’t do it for you, this probably won’t either. But it is not the same mediocre stuff that has dragged the genre down.
Last Updated: October 31, 2014