Director – Elise Robertson, Screenplay – R. Scott Adams, Story – R. Scott Adams, Mouncey Ferguson & Elise Robertson, Producers – Mouncey Ferguson & Jude S. Walko, Photography – Bobby Scott, Music – Stefan Girardet, Special Effects/Makeup Effects – Ralis Kahn, Production Design – Alessandro Marvelli. Production Company – Arroyo Filmworks
Erik Stocklin (Thomas), Desiree Hall (Kayley), Colley Bailey (Mike), Adelaide Kane (Nicole), Brandon Morales (A.J.), Dominic Devore (Derek), Krystal Davis (Valerie), Antonio Trischitta (Brody), Kevin Kearns (Carter), Eric Pierpoint (George Donner)
Thomas takes three school friends up to his parents’ cabin in the Sierra Nevada mountains near the Donner Pass, the site of a famous incident in 1846 where a pioneer group became trapped and were forced to resort to cannibalism to survive. Thomas’s parents know nothing about their being there and he urges them not to disturb anything. However, things start to go wrong after they find that the bitchy Nicole has also invited her boyfriend Derek, the bullying A.J. and two others and they are forced into letting them stay. There are also reports of an escaped killer in the area, while Thomas tells the legend of how the spirit of George Donner haunts the mountain. As the group settle in partying, someone starts slaughtering their numbers. As they struggle to find what is happening, tensions within the group prove just as deadly.
The Donner Party incident is a real event in the history of the American Frontier. A group of pioneers led by George Donner set out from Springfield, Illinois to settle in California but became lost and then trapped over the winter in the Sierra Nevada mountains. The group spent between November 1846 and March of 1847 in cabins they built near Truckee Lake (an area that has been renamed the Donner Pass today). With food supplies dwindling, they took to eating the flesh of their dead. Out of an expedition of 87 that set out, 48 survived. Most people have probably heard about the Donner Party through reference in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980). Elsewhere, the idea of the frontier expedition reduced to cannibalism has fed into films like Alferd Packer: The Musical/Cannibal: The Musical (1996), based on a similar less well-known true-life incident, and Ravenous (1999). There have been a couple of films made about the incident with the tv movie Donner Pass: The Road to Survival (1978) and The Donner Party (2009) starring Crispin Glover, although neither were widely seen.
Donner Pass comes from Elise Robertson who has a moderate resume as an actress in small parts in various well-known tv series. She has made a couple of short films as director and Donner Pass was her feature-length debut. The great disappointment that one immediately finds is that Donner Pass is not about the Donner Party at all. There is a brief drive-by of the real-life Donner Pass, a potted recount of the Donner Party story within the first five minutes and an end that involves an explanation that ties back in to the incident. However, all but the first five minutes of the film is set contemporary and the majority of the film is a slasher with an unknown killer stalking a teen cast rather than an historical story about stranded pioneers reduced to cannibalism.
Donner Pass sets in as what at the outset seems a desultory and over-familiar slasher film. We see the standard teen characters being isolated at a remote cabin, various things done to cut them off from the outside world before the slaughter sets in, various other things that point suspicion at those among the group. Then however a funny thing happens – Donner Pass starts to become quite interesting. The situation as bitchy Adelaide Kane’s boyfriend and three others join them uninvited becomes fascinating in the way we see the two jocks essentially bullying Erik Stocklin into letting them stay, turning the entire situation around until they are in charge. The scenes debating what to do after they arrive and the psychological dynamics during the snowball flinching contest contain some finely nuanced characterisation and interplay between the actors that are far above what we usually get in the average slasher/teen horror film.
Elise Robertson doesn’t do too badly when it comes to the horror scenes either. There is one good scene where Brandon Morales gets out of the hot tub to go and piss in the snow and behind we see a masked figure creep up and attack Krystal Davis as she remains inside the tub. The ways in which the film manages to create doubt, complicity and uncertainty around all the characters – the bullying Brandon Morales and Dominc Devore; the cryptic comment the waitress mentions about Erik Stocklin going to a local school; the way Adelaide Kane and Dominic Devore turn the situation around to take revenge for her rape – all hold a reasonable degree of cleverness and interest. The film does take a bizarre left field turn into outrightly fantastic territory with the revelation of the identity of the killer at the end. The results are above average for the genre.