Friday, January 20, 2012
Elise Robertson's "DONNER PASS": Friends Don't Let Friends Eat Each Other
Donner Pass (2012)
Directed by Elise Robertson
Written by R. Scott Adams
Donner Pass Official Site
A few nights ago, I caught a special online screening of Elise Robertson's Donner Pass, hosted by the Viscera Film Festival. I couldn't think of a better way to spend one of the first truly cold nights of winter than with a hearty cold weather cannibal flick. As a fan of films like Ravenous, as well as Larry Fessenden's Fear Itself episode Skin and Bones, I hoped to make Donner Pass part of that short list. Would Donner Pass live up to its promise of zany murderous cannibalism inspired by the history of the infamous cannibal tragedy? Well, yes and no.
Donner Pass is an icy, gut-spattered film loosely inspired by the tragic fate of the Donner Party. It infuses history with its own hack-and-slash agenda, dispatching dumb teens for use as the primary dinner protein. Despite some moments of inspired gruesomeness, the film is mostly a disappointment due to a tepid screenplay, stock characters, and some groaner dialogue. However, Donner Pass is not a complete waste of time despite its shortcomings. In fact, Robertson's direction is superb. Her overall vision, along with the work of DP Bobby Scott, looks great. From a technical standpoint, everything is solid. I just wish their world hadn't been populated by cardboard caricatures living in a fairly conventional slasher flick.
A strong, atmospheric, and gory prologue initially caught me off guard. We witness the ghastly appetite of George Donner as he dispatches a small camp of survivors of his doomed party. Even though it presented a very grim historical reality in a sensationalistic manner, I still loved the intro, and was eager to see how it would unfold. Soon, however, the film descends into familiar territory as we're introduced to annoying modern day college kids set for a weekend of partying in a cabin in the woods. Just how the fateful weekend will link to Donner remains to be seen, but for now we have to endure their bickering until the flesh eating commences.
The story is nothing special, which is, perhaps, the biggest disservice. A fairly typical group of young adults embark on a trip to Donner's Pass, the site of the Donner Party tragedy. It's obvious that everyone has complicated relationships with one another making them all eager to get to the beer. Tensions elevate when the party is crashed by a dumb jock and his vapid girlfriend, one of which is tied to an upsetting past experience with a member of our original group. Admidst lots of drinking, testosterone, and more drinking, a mysterious killer arrives and starts offing the kids. Particularly troubling is that they turn up disemboweled and partially eaten. Screenwriter Adams attempts to interject a little mystery to the story in the ghostly form of the legendary George Donner, and a minor revenge sub-plot, but none of these devices elevate Donnor Pass above the standard fare.
Sitting through the film, I couldn't help but wonder what could have been had the film a stronger foundation and a little more character complexity. Donner Pass is the type of film where you must endure the characters. Rather than root for their survival, you'll be begging for a quick, perferably spectacular, death. Maybe that was the intention, I'm not sure. All I know is that what could have been a chilling experience was drained of all suspense simply because I just didn't care. If Donner Pass exists merely as a vehicle to display cannibalistic slaughter, it succeeds. It's just not enough for me, personally. It skims over those psychological aspects that often elevate even the most base horror films. Chiefly missing is that feeling of dread I was expecting from the stellar beginning, a casualty of the by-the-numbers script. Instead, we have moments where a character spells his name in pee in the snow as his girlfriend is killed nearby in the background. Had the tone been more comedic, perhaps it all could have worked. Here, it's just frustrating.
Luckily, the film does deliver on the gore front. Kudos to special effects artist Bianca Appice for using effectively icky practical effects. Without a strong story to rely on, Robertson smartly keeps things brutal. "More is more" is much better in this case, and Robertson and her team don't shy away from delivering gnawed appendages and spilled intestines.
In the future, I do expect good things from Robertson. As I stated above, she displays a deft hand and can obviously deliver a technically sound film. I'd love to see what she can cook up with a fresh, original body instead of being saddled with so much unappetizing dead weight. I urge you to judge for yourself as the film is available now on iTunes, Amazon, Red Box, and a number of other viewing options.
Donner Pass Trailer