Imagine yourself on vacation and stuck in a small tour group of people you can’t stand. Now imagine all the terrible things you’d like to see happen to those fellow vacationers based on your surroundings except take out all the gory details. Odds are even in your head the events you just came up with in your head may either equal the events of CHERNOBYL DIARIES or may even be slightly better. This horror thriller featured Oren Peli’s name heavily in marketing, but the end product isn’t near as effective as the PARANORMAL ACTIVITY series.
In CHERNOBYL DIARIES the setting for the horrible things we want to see happen to a small group of really unlikable people is the city of Pripyat. This city was abandoned due to the nuclear disaster in the neighboring city of Chernobyl. The evacuation was so rapid that the families and workers that loved there had no time to grab any personal belongings and the city now lies as it was for a group of tourists that include two brothers, one of their girlfriends, another friend and an Australian couple all lead by an extreme tourist guide, Uri. They are forced to sneak in for their sightseeing after guards deny their entrance through the main gate. After a couple hours of wandering around they attempt to leave but their van has been compromised and it becomes obvious something is after them.
I couldn’t bring myself to really define what I expected to be the main struggle the tourists were fighting against based on the trailer. It had ghost story vibes, serial killer hints and maybe even just people hallucinating from radiation poisoning. After seeing it I felt like face palming myself for not thinking about it before. The conflict of the film is quite obvious to me now- early on you see a mutated fish and at that point the lights turned on in my head and the dots starter to connect. The conflict mixed with the camera style (which isn’t found footage, but is completely handheld) makes CHERNOBYL DIARIES essentially THE HILLS HAVE EYES meets THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT- that should tell you rather or not this film is something you’d be interested in.
If someone were to list all the different things that appear in this movie I would be giddy with excitement. All the ingredients are there for a potentially awesome horror film, it just could have used a little more prep time to mix them together properly. This is a movie that has moments of really tense action, creepy atmosphere and great looking set pieces, yet it relies too heavily on jump scares and shaky cam action to create an experience that at times is more disorienting than it is viscerally thrilling.
The handheld camera work is great during certain scenes during the daytime, but once the lights go out it is frustratingly difficult to tell what going on. The darkness of scenes doesn’t feel organic to the setting but seems more like a device to hide more interesting elements in the shadows due to budget limitations. The daytime scenes look great and the scenery indeed creates a bleak and unforgiving sense of dread for the characters given just how hopeless and in over their heads it seems their situation is. The film just can’t overcome the fact that as the finale plays out the camera can’t consistently catch any interesting or crowd pleasing action to make this film stand out amongst the crowd.
Then of course there are the characters- none of which are inherently likable, except for maybe the Australian couple to a certain extent. The script doesn’t really do them any favors as there’s really no story carrying them from scene to scene except for a pending proposal introduced in the first few scenes. Once they all decide to go on this tour there is no story, there’s just people reacting to horrible scenarios with a call back to the proposal. These people are fodder for horror movie clichés to satisfy our bloodlust, not unlike what THE CABIN IN THE WOODS set out to lampoon. Here though the dumb decisions are inexplicable aside from the fact that they set up cheap jump scares. Even the bloodlust we crave from a film like this is missing altogether- aside from one partially gruesome aftermath from an attack we didn’t see happen.
CHERNOBYL DIARIES is a film that had potential and one that at times was close to living up to it, but stumbles far too many times over its own feet. At times the sound design and visual style take over and create semi redeemable scenes of tension and creepiness, until one of the characters comes along to snuff out everything enjoyable about it. Shaky camerawork aside, the film’s biggest flaws are in its thinly fleshed out script, lack of consistent thrills and jaw droppingly stupid logic displayed by characters. The film offers no safe haven for fans thirsting for something new and interesting- but plenty of recycled ideas that are stripped of everything that could make it memorable. CHERNOBYL DIARIES is fun for brief moments when it’s not forcing you to face palm yourself and visually interesting at times you’ll wish you were watching it on mute.
Written By: Luke (@CrummyLuke on Twitter)