RUNNING TIME: 86 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Chris, his girlfriend Natalie, and their mutual friend Amanda, are traveling across Europe. They stop in Kyiv, Ukraine to visit Chris’s brother Paul before heading on to Moscow, where Chris intends to propose to Natalie. Paul meets a guy called Uri, who is an ‘extreme tour’ guide, and who offers to take them on a tour of the abandoned town of Prypiat which sits in the shadow of Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, site of the infamous disaster. They are joined by backpacking couple, Norwegian Zoe and Australian Michael. The group is initially denied access by the military to the abandoned city, which was home to Chernobyl workers and their families before the disaster, but Uri takes them past a forested, unmanned check point. As they explore Chenobyl, it seems that the area is not entirely deserted……
I remember it well, the catastrophic nuclear accident that occurred on 26 April 1986 at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. An explosion and fire released large quantities of radioactive contamination into the atmosphere which spread over much of Western USSR [aka Russia] and Europe. Widely considered to have been the worst nuclear power plant accident in history, it was very scary when it was happening and 500 000 workers were struggling to contain the catastrophe. They eventually succeeded, but the eventual death toll is estimated at 4,000 with a total of 25,000 [or more, it is widely debated] excess cancer deaths. The air in and around Chernobyl has only just become breathable which may explain why film makers are at last exploiting the concept. First of all Transformers: Dark Of The Moon had a detour to the area, and now we have Chernobyl Diaries, which has already been widely criticised for using a subject which is unfit for entertainment and even being offensive to victims of the disaster.
I would cautiously disagree with both points. Horror cinema, by its very nature, often confronts unsavoury topics, often in a fantastical way, and there wasn’t one bit in the script which seemed to be offensive. It actually seems that some people didn’t even watch the film properly and have misunderstood one major plot point. Chernobyl Diaries wasn’t shown to film critics but that shouldn’t really be much indication of its quality or lack thereof; many horror movies seem to follow this pattern because they have a built-in audience which won’t bother to listen to what some snobby critic tells them, and of course many film critics look down on horror films anyway, especially the more formulaic kind such as stalk and slash movies. Now Chernobyl Diary is most definitely a formulaic piece. Some young people go to a place and are picked off blah blah blah. If you don’t like this kind of movie, it most certainly won’t convert you. If, though, you do, you may find it actually works very well. I found the film pretty gripping and even rather scary.
It plays like a typical Hostel/ Paradise Lost type of film at first with four young protagonists abroad, having fun and living it up, and planning to go somewhere which sounds kind of fun but also has something ominous about it. Another example of nasty natives in a foreign land, doing horrid things to nice, mainly American visitors. Some day, someone of non-American descent will make a film where visitors from another country go to the good old US of A and very bad things happen to them. Anyway, so we have a tour guide who immediately has don’t trust me written on his foredead. Why does he seem so keen to take them to Chernobyl? Perhaps something awful is going on there and our man takes people to participate in whatever dreadful things are happening? The film plays with these thoughts, but actually doesn’t follow through on them and may actually disappoint some in this respect.
There’s an awful lot of wondering around, but the morbid locale is interesting and gradually a stronger and stronger feeling of unease is built up, punctuated by a really great shock moment with a bear which certainly made me jump and didn’t rely too much on the obligatory musical sting. Then, horror of horrors, the car doesn’t start, and from the on the picture really is quite hair-raising. Fans of nasty animal movies will probably think of stuff like The Day Of The Animals, though the use of creatures is actually quite minimal, and anyway there is another, far more dangerous peril to be discovered. There is an incredibly suspenseful bit where one of the women is trapped in a room with something, and, though matters do become very repetitive – people chased, people hiding, people chased again, etc. – there is a real sense of dread. When the characters go down some steps into some rooms, it really does feel like they are descending into hell, and the word descending is appropriate as The Descent is certainly evoked in the film’s nerve- wrecking final third. You may also l think of certain zombie movies. Then, just as you may think it’s become a bit stuck on repeat in lieu of a more interesting final act, it wraps up with a kind of explanation which is nice and simple.
All this is amazingly good for a first time director, not to mention a screenwriter who normally gives us blatant rip-off crud like Transmorphers: Fall Of Man and Paranormal Entity, though of course Oren Peli’s participation was bound to result in something good. There is great mileage made out of things appearing in the background and then disappearing, creating a really unsettling feeling and even making you wonder if you saw something at all. Also rather effective is when the camera slowly circles round the car while the people are inside it, and my hated shakycam/fast cutting is mostly avoided until the climax except for one scene where its use is justified in terms of what is happening, and even at the ending it’s fairly brief. Kudos also for keeping the ‘perils’ barely seen, and using real dogs in some scenes. There’s not even that much violence on show, though gore fans will be still be treated to some very gruesome wound detail. The sheer intensity of the piece certainly warrants a ‘15’, that’s for sure, and yet some of the most effective scenes are almost silent, or just have the score playing and all other sound elements are removed [this is well used in several choice moments].
I will say that the scene of the child that features in the trailer is disappointing and comes to nothing, while some of the dialogue is passable. Characters sometimes behave like fools though that’s nothing new! The score seems to mostly consist of one note, and yet it sure helps the tension. I was sure that Chernobyl Diaries would be fun, but, with some surprisingly good performances from its cast, I actually found it overall to be far better than I expected. Within its limitations, it is very well crafted. I would say ignore the moaning from people with nothing better to do and criticisms from people who don’t understand or like the kind of movie it is, and check it out. I can’t wait to see what Bradley Parker makes next, though please, not a sequel to this movie!