Oren Peli has ruined my movie-going experience one time too many. The dude responsible for the Paranormal Activity atrocities has had me running screaming down the aisles in disgust rather than fright. But now Peli has nearly redeemed himself by producing and co-writing the screenplay for Chernobyl Diaries. This flick is nowhere near as bad as I had anticipated; in fact it’s downright fun.
Looking like we’re in found footage territory from the get-go, this is merely a trick to help set up the characters on a European vacation, though found footage is wisely incorporated again later. We begin with the formulaic technique of spending time with couples vacationing before they’re detoured from Moscow and treated to mutated cannibalistic humanistic underground dwellers. (C.H.U.D. Remember?)
There are three couples: Chris (Jesse McCartney) and his girlfriend Natalie (Olivia Taylor Dudley), their friend (Devin Kelley), Chris’ brother (Jonathan Sadowski) and some European backpacking love birds (Nathan Phillips of Wolf Creek fame and Ingrid Bolso Berda) plus extreme tour guide Uri (a supremely engaging Dimitri Diatchenko) who venture into the Ukrainian town of Prypiat, which has been abandoned since the Chernobyl nuclear reactor disaster in 1986 left it uninhabitable. The trip’s main is draw is Chernobyl’s fun facts, like nothing lives there, radiation levels are high and everything is deserted just like the people left it when they fled.
Most of the time is spent touring some dilapidated housing projects making ludicrous comments like "look, no birds anywhere." Then… a noise! Oops, they are not as alone as they thought. After that, you know that the van won’t start and all horror-movie-cliché hell will break loose. The characters go berserk running around in circles, through endless hallways and flights of stairs or are trapped in the van screaming, yelling and cursing in fright as they get picked off one by one. Sure it sounds familiar, but that’s what’s fun about this flick. Wherein Cabin in the Woods took the genre to extremes, Chernobyl stays right on the mark delivering the creepy goods in a tried and true formula. This is exactly what scary movies are supposed to be like—an unknown entity that is REAL, threatening to kill the shit out of you if you do not high tail it the hell out of there.
All along we’re kept guessing. Could it be redneck Russian hillbilly cannibals or radiated mutated crazy people? Soon enough we know what we’re dealing with: a plethora of menacing creatures, including rabid wild dogs and wispy-haired zombie-like sub-humans. But there’s not enough monster footage as first-time director Brad Parker, via jumpy hand-held camera work, avoids long-drawn-out shots of the pale creatures, instead giving us sudden glimpses that only hint at their ruined features and physical deformities.
Filmed in Hungary and Serbia, the locations and realistic production design and sets are by far some of the coolest things in this movie.
However, after all the big scares and chases down corridors and tunnels, there isn’t much of a pay off. This movie could stand to be even longer with more focus on the “mutants-gone mad” to up the stakes and explain why the hell they are so darn mean.
There’s absolutely no rhyme or reason as to why the creatures either eat their prey right away or drag them around until their cohorts can stumble upon them. And after all is said and done, we still get the big cover up, sell out ending. Chernobyl conjures up images of better movies past like The Ruins, I am Legend, The Descent, and the more recent Stag Night (a similar set up in the subway tunnels of New York).
Even though most people will still praise the ever-wearing thin Paranormal franchise, Chernobyl faithfully returns to the horror movie genre. Seriously, who doesn’t want to see a bunch of well-intentioned freaked out dumbshits running into more peril instead of away from it, like rats in a maze with creepy monsters around every turn? Give credit where credit is due. This film is as fun as a barrel of uranium-enriched monkeys.
Starring: Ingrid Bolsø Berdal, Dimitri Diatchenko, Olivia Taylor Dudley, Devin Kelley, Jesse McCartney, Nathan Phillips,
Directed by Brad Parker