If you’re a fan of the most mediocre of horror movies, have we got a film for you this week. Chernobyl Diaries, the latest from the guy who did the middle of the road masterpiece Paranormal Activity. And in this case, instead of ghosts caught on camera, it’s like someone fell asleep on top of the Pripyat amusement park pictures while reading the final book of The Time Machine. Extremely light spoilers ahead, though nothing that gives away the end.
First off, this isn’t anything you haven’t seen before. Like Hostel, The Hills Have Eyes, Vacancy, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Wolf Creek, The Descent, Eden Lake and The Human Centipede, this genre pretty much exists to warn young people about the dangers of travelling too far from their hometown. And like at least half of those kinds of movies, it’s got uncivilized mutant cannibal folk. Oh how inventive.
There’s one thing that’s completely amazing about this film: none of the scenes are wasted at all. It’s a complete Chekhov’s Gun of a movie. If someone finds a flashlight, it will play an important role later. Or, Amanda’s photography hobby later uncovers a hint to the mystery of what on Earth’s going on at Pripyat. Of course, this isn’t exactly the best way to do a movie, because they literally set every single scare up. Every single one. Got a lake of mutant piranha groupers? They’re going to try to bite someone’s legs off later. Broken doll in an abandoned play park? They’re going to go for the creepy child ploy at some point. Or how about the dead dog that sets up the later dog attack. You can almost set your watch by it, or draw a chart or something. On one hand this is great for some atmosphere building. On the other hand, this all makes for one incredibly predictable horror movie that relies too much on jump scares when it gets right down to it. Sometimes, a director just has to add a misdirection or two to keep the suspense moving.
And just to compound some profoundly dumb writing, they stick to the horror tradition of having the characters make some profoundly dumb decisions to move the plot along. There’s also a strange lack of variety in reactions with our group. For instance, every time someone is found, a single one of the group members has to have a loud breakdown before being dragged off, and a good portion of the crew get to experience this at least once from both sides. We don’t really get to see distinctions like “the leader” and “the hothead” because everyone just drifts together in a wash of samey beige, who all react in the way the wider plot demands rather than how they would react as an individual character (except maybe for Nathan Phillips as Michael, who actually shows off some intelligence and gumption at times. Maybe in order to get the guy from Wolf Creek signed on, the production company had to guarantee his character a personality or something.) A shovel load of bad acting doesn’t really help bring the poor writing out its hole; the caliber of acting in this is downright CW.
However, it’s not all completely bad. As I mentioned before, the atmosphere built here was fantastic, though that might just be the fault of Pripyat itself. It’s hard to go wrong with blocks and blocks of abandoned Soviet apartments. Also, if you’ve ever checked out pictures of Pripyat online (or, in fact, actually been there), you’ll also recognize a lot of the areas the intrepid crew go through. I’m surprised no one’s tried to make a blockbuster horror movie out of this before, because the photos have always gotten a lot of attention.
In the end though, even the best sense of atmosphere won’t save a terrible movie from being terrible; look at the Saw franchise, for instance. With Chernobyl Diaries, take away the fantastic setting and it leaves a film that really doesn’t bring anything new or better to the table, which is a problem for a successfully-made horror movie. Skip this and rent the original Hills Have Eyes if you really need mutant cannibals in your life right this second.
Also, everyone’s probably already asking this, but where was the diary?