Dead Mountain, or Pereval Dyatlova in the original Russian, is an eight-part miniseries based on what has become known as The Dyatlov Pass Incident in which nine cross country skiers met unexplained and horrific deaths. It’s already been the subject of several books as well as films, most notably Devil’s Pass by Renny Harlin. Producers Valeriy Fedorovich (The Blackout) and Evgeniy Nikishov (Chernobyl: Zone of Exclusion) claim to have based this account on recently declassified documents but it seems that “Based on true events” carries as much meaning in Russia as it does in the US.
Set in 1959, Dead Mountain opens with KGB major, Oleg Kostin (Pyotr Fyodorov, Sputnik) tasked with investigating the deaths. Officially he’s not there and doesn’t exist, something that immediately arouses the suspicions of both the audience and those he works with, most notably Katya (Mariya Lugovaya, Better Than Us) the local medical examiner.
Four of Dead Mountan’s episodes follow Kostin’s investigation. The other four, shot in black and white, follow the doomed students on their journey. The two stories unfold in alternating episodes. In one set we see the investigation and the theories of what might have happened. In the other, we see what actually happened, from the group receiving approval for their trip from the authorities, conditioned on having Sasha Zolotaryov (Egor Beroev, August 8) accompany them through their interaction with the locals Mansi tribes to their ultimate fate.
I found the episodes dealing with the investigation the more interesting of the two. Kostin is a compelling main character with an interesting backstory. He’s haunted both literally and figuratively by his experiences in WWII. That and the machinations of Soviet intelligence make for more interesting viewing than most of the student’s journey. That’s not to say that the episodes devoted to them are dull, they’re not. But they suffer from the same issue that many found footage films do, we know their fate before the story even starts which keeps it from getting very suspenseful. And the interaction among the group is mostly bland, lacking bite or drama.
And it’s Kostin and to a degree Zolotaryov’s, involvement in the war that gives Dead Mountain one of its most interesting angles. One that unfortunately is never used to more than tease viewers. And that’s a problem that runs through the show. Dead Mountain feels like it wants to be a Russian X Files, but it keeps undercutting itself. Several interesting and downright weird possible explanations for the deaths are raised and then either quickly dropped or explained away. This is too bad because it’s at its best when it’s going with the story’s creepier elements. Especially in the opening episode with its unsettling and surprisingly bloody look at Nazi occultism.
If Dead Mountain had taken that idea and run with it, developing Zolotaryov’s character and involvement a bit more, it could have been an excellent example of genre TV. Instead, it cycles through several interesting ideas ranging from aliens to escaped prisoners and angry locals. And then settles for the blandest explanation possible. It’s a huge disappointment.
In the end, Dead Mountain falls short of what I thought it would be after the first episodes. It’s still an interesting show, and one worth watching. There are several genuinely creepy moments and the show’s cinematographers have a talent for making beautiful wilderness scenes turn ominous in the blink of an eye. It’s just too bad it takes the easy way out at the end.
Dead Mountain premiered exclusively on Topic on September 2nd with one episode each week till October 7th. You can check their website for more information.