When you’re putting together a horror movie, it pays to make sure you incorporate some level of horror in it. The anticipation of something happening is enough to keep the audience sitting uncomfortably in their seats for some time, but that’s also because they’re under the impression that their waiting will eventually lead to something happened. There must be payoffs along the way to keep you interested, and there certainly must be progression of some sort of story to make you care.
CHERNOBYL DIARIES does none of these things, offering up a group of seven idiots on an extreme tour of Pripyat, the abandoned city that once housed the workers of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor and their families. The only thing we get along the way are bad decisions compounded by more bad decisions by characters who are better off being killed by whatever is lurking near Chernobyl for our benefit, not because it makes for a more entertaining film, but because it means we don’t have to watch them one moment longer.
The premise for the film isn’t all that bad. A group of four 20-somethings (Devin Kelley, Jonathan Sadowski, Olivia Taylor Dudley and Jesse McCartney) join up with a couple of vacationers (Ingrid Bolsø Berdal and Nathan Phillips) to go off with Uri (Dimitri Diatchenko), an ex-Special Forces-turned-extreme tour guide who is willing to find his own way into a restricted area after being turned away by the guards at a secure checkpoint. After all, who cares about safety when what really matters is that the trip was paid for already? After a pretty cool walk around the city exploring the worn buildings and landscapes which has been empty for the last 25 years (one of the only plusses of the film – seeing these locations is quite impressive), it’s time to head back, only the wires on their van have been torn up and they have no way home. Sounds like time for some bad shit to go down when you’re trapped waiting in a van as darkness falls. I wish CHERNOBYL DIARIES had something like that in mind. However, the film chooses to go down the path of cheap jump scares, followed by shaky cam, so no one ever has the ability to see what is at the root of the problem. The only time we ever get a clear picture of anything is when there are animals involved, but they’re not really the source of terror for this crowd. I’m all for what you can’t see being terrifying, but that also only really works under the premise that eventually I’m going to see something. If the story isn’t going to give me any clue as to what I should be frightened of, then the visuals sure as hell better pick up the slack. CHERNOBYL DIARIES chooses neither option, opting to keep me in the dark with the characters. The only difference is that I’m detached from the action. I don’t hear strange noises around me. My involvement in what’s happening is at a distance. Therefore, without engaging me by showing me something that those on-screen might not be able to see, I’ve got no reason to really give a shit about what might happen next. And, if you’re going to show shadows, silhouettes or fragments of beings moving in the background, I’d better get to see the whole thing before the last five minutes of the film.
CHERNOBYL DIARIES winds up playing like a really shitty walk-through haunted house. It’s a series of rooms and mazes leading your group in a particular direction, only as you keep going, you start to lose members of your party… only you have no idea what’s taken or harmed them. The extent of character development is limited to these two dudes are brothers, and this guy wants to propose to that girl. In fact, the other person I found myself rooting for to make it out alive is Michael (Phillips). He seems to be the only one with any measure of common sense – retrieving a gun, grabbing a map, making a real effort to escape their circumstances. However, he keeps getting dragged back by his good nature to try to help this group he’d only met a few hours when their various friends continue to go missing. He doesn’t owe them anything. In fact, his one fault is not saying, “Fuck it,” and splitting with his girlfriend. Instead he stays with these dumbasses who insist on looking for their pals who can only be tracked by the blood trails they’re leaving behind or their screams. Everyone else deserves to die while stuck in Pripyat, because frankly they’re far too stupid to live. One girl notices a figure of some sort in a photo she took, and, even when remembering that this city is supposed to be abandoned, doesn’t think it strange or a big deal to mention to the rest of the group that perhaps something that doesn’t belong is there with them. The tour guide finds a pile of hot coals where a recent fire burned, and he thinks it’s far more prudent to kick it aside and pretend it never existed than issue any type of warning. Oh, the hits just keep on coming.
Director Brad Parker manages to make Pripyat feel as isolated as it should, finding the right balance between cool and creepy for a place that was the location for a nuclear disaster. If only he used that same eye for the scenery when it came to showing us creatures, CHERNOBYL DIARIES may have turned out better. Unfortunately, that’s when his camera seems to come down with a terrible case of the shakes. However, the real failing of this movie falls at the feet of Oren Peli, whose original story is the basis for CHERNOBYL DIARIES and who had a hand in penning the screenplay with Carey and Shane Van Dyke. This trio gives no life to any of the characters they’ve created making for a horror movie not only lacking horror but also personality. If you’re not having fun watching a horror movie, then there’s something seriously wrong… and there’s plenty seriously wrong with this flick. But is there any sin worse than making a horror film boring? I'm not quite sure about that.
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