CHERNOBYL DIARIES is a film so unsure of itself, one has to wonder if even the filmmakers had any idea what they were doing. It’s another blurry, shaky, inconsequential horror film produced by PARANORMAL ACTIVITY’s Oren Peli. I wish I could tell you what cheap stunt the people behind CHERNOBYL DIARIES were going for, but I’m not even sure they knew themselves.
Chris (Jesse McCarthy – who I could have sworn was Frankie Muniz for most of this film) is making his way across Europe with Natalie (Olivia Dudley – CHILLERAMA) and Amanda (Devin Kelley – COVERT AFFAIRS). The group visits Chris’ brother Paul (Jonathan Sadowski – S#*! MY DAD SAYS, FRIDAY THE 13TH) in the Ukraine. Unfortunately, Paul is a complete jerk, as is obvious to everyone who isn’t a character in this film. Maybe the filmmakers intended him to be a sympathetic character. Regardless, he isn’t. Chris wants to marry his girlfriend Natalie, which of course Paul doesn’t understand. He convinces the group to forgo the typical tourist traps in favor of the “extreme tourism” (cue eye roll) of Pripyat.
Pripyat is the star of the film, or at least it should be. This is the city that housed the workers of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant and their families. The city was abandoned within a couple of hours when the Chernobyl nuclear disaster happened in 1986. Workers who were able to escape packed up their families and whatever they could carry. The city of Pripyat has remained relatively untouched since then, a ghost town frozen in time.
The four tourists meet up with two others (Ingrid Bolsø Berdal and Nathan Phillips) and their tour guide Uri (Dimitri Diatchenko – I’m getting sick of writing these actor names, by the way) who travel to the checkpoint outside the city limits. They are told to turn back by two guards at the post. While this would be a big clue for most people, Uri assures the group that there is little radioactivity, no dangerous people and no reason they should turn back. Using a back entrance (into a city?), they make their way through the abandoned, decaying buildings of Pripyat.
Unfortunately, as night gets closer, the group finds that – surprise, surprise – their van won’t start. They’re stuck in Pripyat and suddenly it becomes very important that they leave before nightfall. They don’t and the group discovers that Pripyat is not entirely unoccupied. Strange, nocturnal, cannibalistic mutants roam the city and snatch the group members one by one. If that sounds interesting, it isn’t. Director Brad Parker makes sure everything is shot in such a way that you can’t tell who is getting attacked by what most of the time.
CHERNOBYL DIARIES seems to be shot in a handheld manner similar to the “found footage” aesthetic everyone seems to be so fond of these days. But that’s just the thing. This is not a found footage film. The title is a misnomer. There are no “diaries” in this film. This is not the documented footage of these travelers. There is no footage or documentation that anyone uses as a guide. But found footage films have been big for producer Oren Peli, so why not milk the format anyway? The camera shakes back and forth, never giving us good glimpses of what is going on and poorly framing and lighting even the calm moments of the story. There is no practical reason to film CHERNOBYL DIARIES this way. Artistically, has a disastrous effect. There are no scares and one can’t get a good grasp on anything, not enough to care anyway.
Parker seems to know what many horror films contain, but not what makes them effective. This film is drab, uninvolving and worst of all boring. The character set-up is mishandled. It takes forever for anything to happen. Popular horror tropes are trotted out, but contain no suspense thanks to the ham-fisted production. And as far as plots go, CHERNOBYL DIARIES is hard to swallow even by genre standards.
Not including credits, the film is less than eighty minutes long. And yet, at least half that time is spent with characters who stumble through the dark, waving their flashlights around and endlessly calling the missing members of their group. The film is so unrelentingly dull that at times it seems like a cruel joke, as if Warner Bros. tricked us into seeing this film and now that we’re a captive audience, they want to see how much we can endure.
But the greatest crime is how totally and completely this film squanders its setting. In 1999, Nikolaus Geyrhalter made a documentary called PRIPYAT that is worth tracking down. It deals with the legacy of the Chernobyl disaster. This crumbling city which used to house families who trusted in the safety of what they were doing, only to be faced with one of the greatest ecological disasters in history. What does CHERNOBYL DIARIES give us? Pale rejects from the Hills Have Eyes School of Nuclear Disfigurement. The film has one of the most amazing settings and does the least imaginative thing possible with it.
A good horror film has characters we care about. It has well-shot scenes which build suspense and a sense of eeriness. It has scares that make us afraid to turn out the lights. All CHERNOBYL DIARIES has is a place. ★ (out of ★★★★)
– Rated R for violence, some bloody images and pervasive language
– Running Time: 1hr 26mins.