This weekend I was able to check out Bradley Parker’s directorial debut, Chernobyl Diaries, a thriller/horror film from Paranormal Activity scribe, Oran Peli. I entered the theater expecting your usual “young people running around screaming and getting killed one by one” summer fluff. I left an hour and a half later, feeling generally … ambivalent.
Reviewing horror films is surprisingly difficult, since people approach the genre in completely different ways. Overall, I would say Chernobyl Diaries will appeal, mostly, to the passive audience; those people who are in it for fun and cheap thrills, since that is really all it brings to the table plot-wise.
The film follows four friends on a whirlwind trip through Europe, culminating in an unscheduled extreme tourism adventure to the abandoned city of Pripyat, where the workers from the Chernobyl plant lived. The basics of the story are intriguing, the setting is extremely visually engaging, and the horror factor is built in. After all, the possible effects of radiation on an area are generally unknown, and the eerie silence of a city left abandoned in moments can make your imagination run wild with possibilities of things lurking in the darkness. That’s one area where the film triumphs, at least for a while. The setting is, in itself, scary, and the way its both written and shot give you plenty of reason to be afraid of what’s out there. You don’t see the bad guys themselves, just shadows, glances. You are just as uncertain as the characters as to whether or not they’re being hunted by animals or something else, and what kinds of horrible things could have been created by the nuclear fallout. There’s plenty of misdirection, so you never know exactly when something terrible will happen to one of the cast members, and the buildup through the first two acts is suspenseful enough to hold your attention, so long as you don’t look too closely.
The third act is where things start to fall apart though, as it becomes a 20 minute race to the finish, literally. The last portion of the film takes all the suspense and minor thrills of the last 70 minutes, and turns it into an extended chase scene through ever darkening corridors. The last couple minutes might actually save the film, since the conclusion is far more disturbing than the ultimately unveiled monsters, but I don’t want to spoil the ending.
Bradley Parker’s directorial debut is not without note. The cinema veritae style in which the film was shot walks the line between traditional shooting, and the found footage style we’ve come to recognize from films like Paranormal Activity and The Blair Witch Project. While some may dismiss the style as “shaky camera” without the intrigue of being from an actual character’s point of view, the realism achieved through Parker’s choices enhances the suspense of the otherwise thin plot. It keeps you from knowing much more than the characters, while being smooth enough as to not send half the audience running out of the theater to vomit (I have yet to actually see Cloverfield for this reason, though it sounded good).
Easily the film’s weakest link, however, were the characters. This can’t entirely be blamed on the performances, though they were certainly not anything special, but more on the fact that they were just really … dumb. Each and every character in the film make unbelievably bad decisions one after the other, all of which have terrible, and sometimes deadly, consequences. From entering the abandoned town without permission, to running out, unarmed, into the darkness after a strange sound, the characters fall into absolutely every horror movie trope, and leave you wondering if they’ve suffered some sort of collective brain damage. The upside to these horrifically moronic characters is the fact that their terrible choices make their eventual deaths much more enjoyable, since you’re sort of rooting for it to happen the entire time.
While this film will fall extremely flat with those expecting the same thrills as Paranormal Activity and will probably just serve to piss off the horror movie purists, it does have its merits, and is certainly the kind of film that would be perfect for a night out with friends. It doesn’t require your full attention, doesn’t strain your brain muscle, and could lead to a few laughs at the characters’ expense. If you don’t go in expecting much more than a good time, and some simple thrills, you won’t feel like you’re wasting your money. Just don’t go looking for the next horror movie classic.
Overall Rating: 5.5/10