Dead Mountain

The Dyatlov Pass Incident is one of the weirder events of the 20th century. Nine Soviet hikers were found dead on the side of a remote Siberian mountain, in very unusual circumstances. Some were half-clad. Others had crushing injuries. Their tent had been ripped open from the inside. Theories for what happened range from the prosaic (avalanches triggering a panicked exit) to the esoteric (UFOs, naturally).

Nobody knows for sure what happened, which makes speculation all the more fun. There have previously been both documentaries and fictional features about the event. Now, comes this 8-part Russian TV series which while fictional, is based on official records, and purports to tell the true story of what happened in 1959.

There are two strands, occupying alternating episodes. Parts 1, 3, 5 and 7 cover the investigation by KGB major Oleg Kostin (Pyotr Fyodorov, looking like a Soviet-era version of Colin Farrell). With the help of a widowed medical examiner, Katya Shumanova (Mariya Lugovaya), whose late husband served alongside Kostin in the war, he picks his way through various theories. These range from an encounter with prison guards through to murder by locals, displeased at the hikers’ invasion of a sacred space. There are also flashbacks to his wartime service.

Meanwhile, episodes 2, 4, 6 and 8, shot in black-and-white and 4:3 aspect ratio, follow the hikers themselves, as they make their way from Kiev up to the mountain, and on towards their date with death, under expedition leader Igor Dyatlov (Ivan Mulin). Also in the party is a late addition, “ski instructor” Sasha Zolotaryov (Egor Beroev) who, as my use of quotes suggest, may not be entirely what he claims.

It’s a novel approach, which generally works well, and keeps the viewer’s interest up – always a difficult task, since we know how this ends (the why, of course, is a different matter). I think I found Oleg’s episodes to be the more engaging, not least the brilliantly-shot wartime sequences. There is, for example, a flashback to an attack by a dive-bomber (below), that is just amazingly well assembled.

The first part also have them discovering a secret Nazi laboratory where what can only be described as seriously weird shit was being researched. I kept thinking this was going to show relevance later, to his investigation; it doesn’t, though is still creepy as hell. Nor does Oleg come to any definitive conclusion. But he’s fine with that, since his presence there is as much to prove what didn’t happen, as what did. There is still closure, albeit of a more personal kind.

The sections with the students are a little less personable; there may just be too many of them for their characters to be fully developed. Things like the romantic angles seem unnecessary, and shoehorned in there in lieu of deeper dives into their personalities. I will admit, when the final episode rolled around, and the cause of their fate was revealed, my initial reaction was, “Oh. Is that it?” Because it’s considerably more prosaic than some of the theories mentioned above.

However, even though we knew it was going to end in the deaths of everyone, there were still some powerful moments. The crushing inevitability of fate became apparent, despite their struggles, as a single mistake effectively dooms the entire party. Watching their lives being taken, one by one, was surprisingly poignant, despite the lack of connection to their characters. There’s a particularly sad coda – switching back to colour – which shows them back in Kiev (below), cheerfully packing and getting ready to leave, utterly unaware of what would befall them.

Overall, this felt like Project Blue Book, both in the era, and the use of actual events to tell a story which merges reality with fictional elements. Here, I wasn’t able to find anything suggesting Oleg Kostin existed, for example. Had the show leaned into the more paranormal theories, the parallels to Blue Book would have been even stronger. However, the massive backdrop of the Ural Mountains against which events play out, may be the show’s strongest suit, providing a spectacular and epic setting. Though the question of why anyone would voluntarily go into such a hostile, bleak wilderness, remains as uncertain as the fate of the hikers.

Dead Mountain is currently streaming on the Topic channel in the US and Canada, along with its apps and partner channels, such as Topic on Amazon. The final episode will be released there on October 7.