This Film Turned the Dyatlov Pass Incident Into a Horror Movie Nightmare


The Big Picture

  • Director Renny Harlin brings his trademark sense of playfulness and excitement to Devil’s Pass, turning a perplexing real-life mystery into a modern horror adventure.
  • The film effectively builds tension through ominous discoveries and explores the consequences of characters meddling with things beyond their understanding.
  • While the creature effects in the bunker sequence may be lackluster, the twist involving time travel adds intrigue and a satisfying conclusion to the story.

Renny Harlin has nurtured quite the reputation in Hollywood over the years. He has achieved it all, from mega-hits to legendary bombs and everything in between. Die Hard 2 is still a firm favorite with action fans, Cutthroat Island is still considered one of the biggest flops of all time, and Deep Blue Sea, as silly as it is, is remembered as one of the most decent shark movies outside of Jaws. He brings a sense of playfulness to his work, making movies with the wide-eyed childish glee that you’d hope for from any artist, but frequently losing himself in overambition. He often declares his actors the finest on offer, his effects the most realistic, and his stories the most compelling, when anyone with an objective view of things can recognize them as just above average. He may not be the guy you go to when looking for scientifically accurate or logically sound movies, but the man knows how to entertain an audience, and he was a great choice for shaping Russia’s most infamous mystery into a modern horror adventure in 2013’s Devil’s Pass.

Devil’s Pass

A group of students go to the location of the infamous Dyatlov pass incident to make a documentary, but things take a turn for the worse as the secret of what happened there is revealed.

Release Date
February 27, 2013

Renny Harlin

gemma atkinson , Richard Reid , Matt Stokoe , Holly Goss , Luke Albright , Anastasiya Burdina


Main Genre

Vikram Weet

A film by Renny Harlin, director of Die Hard 2 and Cliffhanger

What Is the Dyatlov Pass Incident?

It’s a mystery that has been making the rounds again now that the new season of True Detective, True Detective: Night Country, has dropped. A mystery that has remained unsolved for a very long time, but that we might have a plausible explanation for. A mystery that became known as the Dyatlov Pass Incident, in which a group of young Russian hikers ventured into the Ural Mountains never to return. When their bodies were recovered, nothing made sense. It seemed these experienced outdoors people had torn their tent open from the inside and fled into the night, partially clothed and facing certain death in sub-zero temperatures. They had sustained catastrophic injuries, some were missing tongues and eyes, and some were radioactive. The best explanation Russian officials could offer was a “compelling natural force”, which only served to fuel conspiracy theories. Back in 2021, researchers who were inspired by the realistic snow animation in the movie Frozen seriously! — have managed to show that a freak avalanche, combined with severe hypothermia, is most likely what killed the members of the party led by Igor Dyatlov. As for the radioactivity, well, they were roaming near the site of a serious nuclear disaster.

Still, for decades on end, the Dyatlov Pass incident remained an unsolved case ripe for a horror movie. In remained so until 2013, when Renny Harlin came along with his own take on the hair-raising enigma. Now, Issa López, the mind behind True Detective: Night Country, sure used the Dyatlov Pass incident as inspiration for the story of a group of scientists that run away from their Alaskan research station only to be found dead in a corpsicle in the middle of the tundra. López even went as far as copying some of the injuries that were inflicted on the members of Dyatlov’s party, such as a missing tongue and eyes scratched out. Nevertheless, she merely chose elements of the real thing to add to her plot. She also looked to John Carpenter’s The Thing and, of course, to True Detective Season 1 for inspiration. Harlin, in turn, went a step further and used the actual story as a springboard for his film. And what’s more, he was the first one to bring this weird tale to the screen.

Harlin went at this enticing project with his trademark excitement, packing up a crew and a largely British cast and heading off to the mountains of Russia to film on location. The DVD behind-the-scenes featurette sees Harlin crawling around in the snow, meticulously going over storyboards, and getting stuck in when it comes to creating his vision and sharing it with his team. He likes to get creative and push boundaries with his work, and while Devil’s Pass doesn’t really stand out stylistically or narratively from its many found footage horror contemporaries, it takes the best the subgenre has to offer and applies it to a bleak and fascinating setting.

What Is ‘Devil’s Pass’ About?

Holly (Holly Goss) is a student documentarian who has received a grant from her university to recreate the Dyatlov Pass expedition and try to explain the unexplained. She gathers filmmaker buddy Jenson (Matt Stokoe), experienced hikers Andy (Ryan Hawley) and JP (Luke Albright), and audio technician Denise (Gemma Atkinson) and heads off into the unknown. Strange things soon start happening in this frigid wilderness: huge footprints that lead nowhere are found outside their tents, their GPS and compass get scrambled, they arrive at their destination far sooner than they should, and they hear strange noises. As things go quickly awry, it becomes evident that the remaining team has no choice but to venture through a creepy door found in the mountains and hope that whatever lies behind it will keep them safe for now.


For More Winter Horror Like ‘True Detective,’ Watch This Liam Neeson Survival Thriller

The man has never been deadlier.

Scattered throughout the movie is an appetizing handful of those unexpected moments that make horror such a thrilling genre. The first of which is the discovery of the door, so damned absurd and ominous that, despite some foreshadowing, it never seems like a real possibility until it’s there in front of them. As other good found-footage horrors like Area 51 show, there is an inherent tension in people exploring places that they aren’t meant to be in, especially if there is military or government involvement. The characters are meddling in stuff way above their station, opening them up to any number of physical threats, with the best-case scenario being detainment or just being shot on site, the worst being the discovery of some top-secret creation that could spell the end for more people than just the main characters.

Harlin really exploits this with the third act of Devil’s Pass. The door leads to a military bunker, seemingly abandoned for some time, but still strewn with official documents, equipment, and even strangely deformed corpses. This third act is built up to another great moment when two hooded figures approach the group out in the snow. Andy, lying broken on the ground, reasons that whoever these people are, they got here too fast for a genuine rescue attempt, and must have more ominous motives. He urges the group to run and leave him behind. Harlin wisely keeps these hooded figures distant from the camera and the characters, rendering them indistinguishable, just two dark figures advancing through the endless white landscape. The visual uncertainty built here is chilling and helps the audience to feel the same flurry of panic and incomprehension that the characters do.

There is only one sequence that lets the movie down, and that is the reveal of humanoid creatures lurking in the dark depths of the bunker. They’re the same kind of humanoid creature that has been seen a thousand times in horror movies, from The Descent to Blair Witch. Well, that’s not strictly true — these ones can teleport! Once these creatures start popping up all over the place and going after our remaining characters, the scene quickly descends into cheap-looking cheese that is oddly reminiscent of old video games, especially thanks to filming in night-vision mode. After such a great buildup of mystery and suspense, the bad CGI creature effects feel a bit silly and lackluster. Thankfully, the sequence doesn’t overstay its welcome, and does, in its defense, add to the story, because the big plot device is about to arrive.

What Is the Time Travel Twist in ‘Devil’s Pass?

A pair of humanoid creatures threateningly crawl over a radio in Devil's Pass
Image via Anchor Bay Entertainment

After J.P. is killed by one of the creatures, Jensen and Holly come across a wormhole, and start trying to put together how and why it might work, and if it could get them out of the bunker. In typical horror style, this leads to many perplexing assumptions and questionable decisions, but it’s an intriguing twist that harkens back to the good old urban legends of military experimentation and its endless possibilities, like those explored in Apollo 18, the aforementioned Area 51, and The Philadelphia Experiment. The theory of the Dyatlov group stumbling upon some sort of top-secret government work, or being accosted by the military, is still a prevalent one, even now that we have some idea of what actually happened, making this a cool reveal. It’s also a great way to extend the frightening reach of the story’s environment: yeti, UFOs and the Russian military are one thing, but now time travel exists, and it is the only possible way out of this hellish situation? The characters couldn’t be more dwarfed by the magnitude of it all, and the vast implications of their discovery are suffocating.

The very end of the movie is its victorious coup de grâce. The choices that lead up to it may be a bit silly — and might not even make much sense at all — but the ending is the final, brilliant revelation in which not everything but most stuff comes together, and some subtle foreshadowing from the beginning of the movie comes to a shocking conclusion. Holly and Jenson decide that they should take the plunge while visualizing their destination — instead of home, or the nearest airport, or just anywhere remotely civilized, they decide to head for the outside of the door because it’s freshest in their minds. Suddenly, two frozen bodies are lying out in the snow, and military men in suspiciously old-fashioned uniforms find them and the camera, and shoo away a couple from a nearby rescue group. The bodies are carried into the now manned and functioning bunker, and revealed to be Holly and Jenson in humanoid creature form, while the military men marvel over the camera and hang the bodies dismissively on meat hooks. Yep, it’s 1959, and the gang has inadvertently fulfilled the reports of an old woman, who earlier told them of finding two extra bodies and a strange machine in the snow when she was part of the Dyatlov rescue efforts all those years ago.

This is where the time travel plot device is brought to its climax, with a wonderfully bleak conclusion for the characters that seems to seal their destinies and bring the narrative back around to a chilling historical conundrum. It also gives the camera — and the use of the found footage format — its proper dues. By the end, the camera itself becomes a character in this weird ordeal and a key player for even the most peripheral players. Not only does it tell us the story in the literal sense, but it acts as a sort of MacGuffin that enables the entire movie to happen. It doesn’t quite break the fourth wall, but it brings the idea of this being real life and not a work of fiction that much closer to the audience. For all the movie’s overuse of camera glitches to mask continuity breaks and not exactly groundbreaking visual storytelling, this ending firmly justifies the found footage format and makes fascinating use of it.

Don’t go into Devil’s Pass looking for a retelling of the Dyatlov Pass incident or for some deeply intelligent or provocative look at this compelling series of events. The true story acts more as a framing device for a modern horror movie, but it provides a truly chilling atmosphere that works well for a 2010s found footage film. Between the endless frigid setting of the Ural Mountains in which there is no safety net and that classic threat of Soviet government involvement, the characters find themselves in a place where they are at the mercy of a number of factors that are much bigger and more powerful than them. This is what a good found footage horror experience needs, for the characters to be out of their element, and to go through an arc from security and certainty to complete helplessness. It’s exciting, at times thoroughly creepy, and opens itself up to further questions. And with Renny Harlin slapping his trademark sense of adventure all over it, it’s a very entertaining watch.

Devil’s Pass is available to stream on Shudder in the U.S.

Watch on Shudder


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