Donner Pass has a well-known and macabre history – the place where George Donner and his party got stuck in the winter of 1846 and were forced to resort to cannibalism to keep from starving. But what if it wasn’t just history?
When this started I was all excited because it was a group of dirty old settlers up in the woods, in the snow, starving and freezing to death and trying to decide if they should start eating people. Next thing I knew they were being killed by one of their own and it was very violent and creepy and I was like, “yes, this is different, this isn’t something I’ve seen a million times before, I can get into this!” But that ended when the movie shot forward a hundred years or so to a group of teenagers in a car, traveling toward some cabin way back in the woods where they would inevitably be drinking and partying and getting hunted down and killed by a psycho cannibal lurking about in the snow. I’ve seen that, in some configuration or another, about two dozen times now, and I’m over it already. Teenagers are always running off to the woods somewhere and hooking up and getting themselves killed in bloody and ridiculous ways. I’ve even seen the ‘cannibal killer on the loose’ plot line done over and over, in movies and TV shows and even books that follow that tired old theme. Sure cannibals are scary, and sure cabins in the woods can be scary. And I’ll even admit that teenagers can be scary once in a while. But when these elements are mixed together the same way I’ve seen before, they just lose their scare factor.
I didn’t recognize any of the actors that made an appearance in Donner Pass. I do have to admit that most of them looked more like teenagers than what I’ve seen before, especially the squirrely looking kid that I knew from the moment he popped up on screen was more than he appeared to be. Maybe I’ve gotten too good at predicting what will happen in movies, or maybe (and more likely) it just followed a certain formula too closely to create any kind of real suspense or mystery. I had the killer pegged within the first 15 minutes, and most of the victims figured out within five minutes of them all appearing on screen. There was one bizarre side story about date rape that I didn’t see coming, but I also didn’t understand its importance to the rest of the plot so I wasn’t that excited about it. A girl took her top off and showed off her boobies, as girls tend to do in such movies, and then she was murdered in a horrible fashion in a hot tub, as tends to happen to such girls in such movies. A bit of misdirection about the true identity of the killer was thrown in, though I wasn’t really fooled by it, but the cast seemed to be. And then, though I crossed my fingers and hoped with all my might that they wouldn’t succumb to it, there was a fake out at the end that obviously was there to leave the possibility open for a sequel or 12 to follow.
I do want to say though, because I think it is important to be fair, that when the kids grab up whatever makeshift weapons they can and head out together to dig their car from the snow and make an escape attempt, I was rather impressed. It never seems like people arm themselves soon enough in psycho killer films. And they definitely don’t stay together in a group like they should. But here they grabbed up shovels and sticks and pickaxes and headed outside and had a few people stand guard while the others worked. It was a good plan, and while it wasn’t going to work out for them (obviously), for at least a few minutes I was impressed. Of course, as soon as that didn’t work out they were splitting up all over the place and death and dismemberment followed. But I will always remember that for that few minutes, this movie did seem to try to be smarter than most movies like this end up being.
Though the soundtrack was alright and the picture quality was excellent and the gory special effects were well done, this film managed to be average at its best moments and rather tired and silly at its worst. Cannibals are creepy all on their own, but this film wanted viewers to believe that they were even creepier if they were immortal and driven to blood lust from one drink of human blood. Which just seemed hokey to me. If you are going to add a supernatural element to your cannibal story, at least have it make some kind of sense.
I watched an excellent Wendigo story on the TV series Fear Itself that knew exactly how to draw together the human and supernatural elements of cannibalism in a believable and down right horrifying way. I don’t think Donner Pass was going with a Wendigo theme, though, and if it was, it didn’t really explain it. And why give the Donner party story a supernatural slant anyway? That story is historical and true and already way scarier than this movie tried to make it. Just the idea of being trapped in the wilderness, starving and dying and knowing that chances are you will never make it out of that wagon train alive, is enough to give a person nightmares.
This looks like the only horror film from director Elise Robertson and writer R. Scott Adams, so perhaps that is why it seems to follow some sort of formula and doesn’t give us anything new or different to experience. Maybe because there are so many bad horror movies in the market that still manage to make a bunch of money, people think it is easy to make a scary movie. But it takes some skill to create one that is truly scary, that shows us things that give us nightmares and access those places buried deep in our minds that we don’t even want to acknowledge exist. Just throwing a bunch of dumb teenagers in a cabin in the woods and killing them off one by one isn’t enough.
Donner Pass (2012)