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Sunday, 13 September 2015

Pound-Shop Forteana

Here are two DVDs I bought for just a pound each (obviously) in a Poundland store last week – The Dyatlov Pass Incident and Skinwalkers. Both movies are based on true events of the Fortean kind. I first heard about Skinwalker Ranch at a talk by Ian Simmons at the Fortean Times Unconvention in October 2004, while the Dyatlov Pass incident made the cover of FT245 in February 2009. Both films were released in 2013, so the fact they’re already being sold at a massive discount suggests that perhaps they’re not very good. In the case of Skinwalkers that’s true – it might have made an enjoyable video game, but as a feature film it’s simply atrocious. On the other hand, The Dyatlov Pass Incident is a brilliant, five-star, film – the best low-budget horror movie I’ve seen in a long time.

Both films take the form of “found footage” following the disappearance of a team that set out to investigate the mystery in question. In the case of Skinwalker Ranch it’s essentially a modern take on the “haunted house” theme – with the usual ghosts, poltergeist phenomena and spectral hounds joined by UFOs, ancient aliens and animal mutilations. In the movie the ranch is being investigated by a group of professional paranormal researchers, and one of the few positive things I can say about it is that the entire cast looks the part (i.e. unattractive social misfits with no discernable personality). Their behaviour is anything but professional, though – the film belongs to the visceral school of horror, with large amounts of screaming and very little in the way of ratiocination.

The Dyatlov Pass Incident is a different matter altogether. To start with, the central mystery is far more intriguing. Instead of a rambling mashup of subjective phenomena occurring over an extended period of time, it’s tightly focused on one specific incident that left real physical evidence (nine dead bodies, to be precise). The aforementioned Fortean Times article, from 2009, began as follows:
The story sounds like something out of a low-budget horror movie: nine young students go on a skiing holiday in Russia’s Ural Mountains but never return. Eventually, their bodies are discovered – five of them frozen to death near their tent, four more bearing mysterious injuries – a smashed head, a missing tongue – buried in the snow some distance away. All, it seems, had fled in sudden terror from their camp in the middle of the night. [...] At the time, seemingly baffled investigators offered the non-explanation that the group had died as a result of “a compelling unknown force” – and then simply closed the case and filed it as “Top Secret”.
The incident took place in February 1959; the FT article coincided with its 50th anniversary. There are several factors that make Dyatlov Pass one of the 20th century’s most intriguing Fortean mysteries. What was the “compelling unknown force” that caused the students such terror? Why did the deaths from hypothermia occur before – not after – the deaths from crushing physical injuries? Why did several of the bodies show signs of radiation damage? What were the mysterious orange lights seen in the sky around the time of the incident? Most intriguingly of all – why did the Soviet military (this was during the Cold War, remember) stamp the case Top Secret and close the area off to civilians?

The film follows a group of American students who attempt to follow in the footsteps of their Russian predecessors – only to suffer the same fate. This is a much more cerebral film than Skinwalkers – with intelligent, educated characters who think things through and don’t do very much screaming at all. It has a strong plot – unexpectedly so for this type of film. The viewer is presented with a number of obvious choices (Was it a UFO encounter? Was it a Yeti-like creature? Was it a natural accident that has morphed into something more sinister through folklore and misinterpretation?)... and then – culminating in one of the most perfect twist endings I’ve ever seen – the movie comes up with a completely different, even more satisfying, explanation of its own. There’s a fine line between whetting the appetite and spoiling the plot, so I’ll just say “Philadelphia Experiment” and leave it at that.

4 comments:

TwoHeadedBoy said...

Ta for the "heads up" - the Dyatlov Pass incident is one of my all time favourite FT articles, been wanting to see the film for a while.

Agreed on Skinwalker Ranch, that was truly terrible. A promising start and some interesting things going on, but without any likeable characters I just didn't care what happened to them.

Andrew May said...

Thanks TwoHeadedBoy - I know that liking or disliking a film can be very subjective, so it's always nice to hear when when someone agrees with me!

Colin Jones said...

These days I only watch DVDs around Christmastime but I'll definitely buy that Dyatlov Pass Incident if I see it on sale, Andrew. I've read about it on various occasions but I've always wondered if it's quite as mysterious as it seems or whether the facts have been greatly embellished over the years ? Anyway, I'm intrigued by the twist ending - The only thing I know about the Philadelphia Experiment is that a ship disappeared (allegedly).

Andrew May said...

Thanks Colin - I won't spoil the story by saying any more about it!

As for the real-world case, I would be tempted to dismiss the whole thing as a natural accident (e.g. an avalanche followed by exposure of the bodies to extreme cold and predators), together with a lot of rumour and speculation... except for one thing, which is that it really does seem the military moved in very quickly to seal the site off from the public. So there may have been some top secret Cold War military testing going on.

If they've got the DVD in my local branch of Poundland, chances are it's in yours too.