"Donner Pass" opens with a flashback, all the way to 1846 and an alternate retelling of the fabled "Donner Party" story pertaining to a group of settlers lost in the mountains who were forced to resort to cannibalism in the face of starvation. This retelling plays out a little differently however, with George Donner himself returning to the camp and murdering the remaining survivors, only to string them up and drain their blood. Seems like an odd choice, given how hard it is to survive in the woods by yourself. As we'll learn in due time though, Donner knew what he was doing.
Flash forward to present day, where a group of over-the-hill looking "teens" are headed out to a mountain cabin for a weekend of skiing. Thomas, whose parents own the cabin, seems uneasy at the idea of having strangers at his family's cabin, and for their part, the gang seem equally wary of him… being "new" to the area and all. If you're thinking "red herring", congratulations, you've watched a horror film before. So have, apparently, the makers of "Donner Pass"
I say that because, the next hour or so of the film play out like pretty much every "teens go to cabin in the woods" type slasher that has been made over the last 20 years or so. After one of the female members of the group invites her boyfriend to the house, he shows up with a rowdy group of friends who are clearly considered unwelcome by Thomas. Unfortunately for him, his "beta male" personality leaves him unable to do anything to rectify the situation. With no other options, the group settles in for some awkwardly staged frat-house shenanigans, that mostly serve to set up another character, Derek, as the Alpha in the group. It's a detour that's momentarily interesting, until you realize the fact that it's largely inconsequential to the rest of the film's proceedings.
The rest of the film plays out like your run of the mill slasher, at least until the end, when they finally decide to swing back around and tie in the "Donner" mythos to the story, as well as explain what we saw during the opening flashback. With all the things they could have done with the history angle - jumping back and forth on the timeline, more flashbacks - it seems mostly like a waste when all is said and done.
Which isn't to say that there isn't a capable polish given to this film on the behalf of director Elise Robertson. An actress herself, "Donner Pass" is her fifth directorial effort, and as far as I can tell, her first in the horror genre. She's strong and confident behind the camera, bringing a level of professionalism and flash to an otherwise cliche-ridden and muddled affair. Given the plot's general lacking, it would have been nice to see her go even further into stylized territory.
When you get down to it, I wanted something different from "Donner Pass". As a history nerd, I was hoping for more of a tie-in to the original story, more parallels between those lost hikers and our current-day protagonists. The trailer certainly lead me to believe that would be the case, but alas, it's not the first time I've been misled by a slick piece of marketing. Such is an occupational hazard when you cover the entertainment industry.
Still, it's not fair of me to outright dismiss a film because it delivered something other than what I had expected. On its own merits, "Donner Pass" is an average direct-to-video slasher directed by a competent hand, that's derailed in the end by a run of the mill, confusing script that never really finds its stride. There's a lot of talent on display though, both on camera and off, so ultimately it's not a total wash. Recommended only for those who like to wade deep into low budget territory with reckless abandon.