The Dyatlov Pass Incident is the name given to a real life disaster, occurring in 1959, in which nine Russian hikers were found dead in the Ural Mountains. The peculiarities of their deaths, which remain unexplained, have made the story a hit amongst conspiracy theorists, whose theories range from the Yeti monster to a Russian Military wipeout.
Renny Harlin’s The Dyatlov Pass Incident follows five American students making a (fictional) documentary on the incident, in which they will film their own journey retracing the steps of the fateful nine to discover, and film, what really happened. Bringing together filmmakers Holly (Holly Goss), Jenson (Matt Stokoe) and Denise (Gemma Atkinson), with experienced mountaineers JP (Luke Albright) and Andy (Ryan Hawley), they set off for the affectionately named, ‘Mountain of the Dead’.
In many ways, the found-footage genre is a great facilitator for this story. The strong opening, done in mockumentary style newsreels, is immediate and direct, updating us on the case facts and rapidly introducing the central characters, really kick-starting the story. After this, the film fails to maintain the same momentum. Whilst repetition is generally expected in Horror, and tropes are tropes for a reason, there must be some level of ingenuity that makes a film different. There is excessive genre repetition going on in The Dyatlov Pass Incident, with an overuse of found-footage tropes that push the film just over to the wrong side of cliché, an especially precarious position to be in in a genre like horror, which relies, in many ways, on its ability to surprise. With awareness of the frequency of this particular comparison when discussing found-footage films, and at risk of falling into cliché myself, it must be said that there are moments during this film, from spooked tents at night to weepy confessionals to camera, that are undeniably reminiscent of The Blair Witch Project. The constant replaying of such motifs is rather tedious, and the loss of mobile phone signal as an indicator of freaky stuff going down is just lazy.
The problem isn’t only in repetition, however. There is a lack of drive throughout the film, which chugs on with only a vague atmosphere of something not being quite right to keep you watching. The eventual climax, though sufficiently scary, is not quite satisfying in terms of plot resolution. Perhaps the choice of such a genuinely puzzling real world mystery is problematic; the explanation is nearly always more boring than you expect, or hope, and mysteries are only intriguing because they are mysteries.
Yet there is something likeable about The Dyatlov Pass Incident. Despite having a considerable budget, the film has a definite B-movie feel, which brings with it a sense of lightheartedness that is very forgiving – you just want to be nice to a B-movie. Though found-footage films are inclined to have a low budget feel, due to the corresponding low budgets of their filmmaking characters, this is not a factor in this instance. The Dyatlov Pass Incident is curiously inconsistent in this respect, with often high production values that actually betray the conventions of the genre and really don’t make much sense. Rather, the B-movie feel comes from a combination of a poor script and even poorer acting. The dialogue, which should be naturalistic for the found-footage to be believable, is frequently flat and hammy and is almost invariably poorly delivered, to the point of being comedic. Casting an ex-Hollyoaks actress (Atkinson) and introducing us to her boobs before her face helps this, too. The total depersonalisation of a female character in favour of an all-encompassing identity as ‘the sexy one’ would give any movie a B-movie feel.
So, for once, poor acting, plot holes, predictability and aesthetic inconsistency are actually what completely save a film. Viewed with good humour, The Dyaltov Pass Incident is pleasantly entertaining, despite its horrific subject matter. Just don’t take it too seriously.