The found footage sub-genre of horror films has been well and truly done to death, and so the question begins – what will be the next trick up filmmakers’ sleeves? Though produced by Paranormal Activity director Oren Peli, Chernobyl Diaries in fact dispenses with the gimmicky necessities of found footage, even if it peculiarly retains the same handheld aesthetic throughout. Thus, confusing it is early on when one character tells another to put their camera away, and of course, our shot doesn’t budge an inch. However, that’s really the least of the complaints in a film that so expertly squanders its solid premise and eerie locale.
When tourists Chris (Jesse McCartney), his girlfriend Natalie (Olivia Taylor Dudley), and their friend Amanda (Devin Kelley) stop off to visit Chris’s brother, Paul (Jonathan Sadowski), he convinces them to go on an “extreme tour” of Prypiat, the abandoned town adjoined to Chernobyl’s Nuclear Power Plant, which has laid dormant since the 1986 disaster. When their tour guide, Uri (Dimitri Diatchenko), finds that the wires to his van have been cut, they have to spend the night in the ghost town, and try to survive a gang of creatures out to hunt them.
The town of Prypiat is an appropriately ominous setting for a horror film, and one which has not been overdone like, say, a haunted house. In its favour, director Bradley Parker – a visual effects supervisor on the likes of Fight Club, xXx and Let Me In – wastes little time in establishing his premise, rushing us through the imposing sights as efficiently as possible. The town’s empty apartments, evacuated in a moment’s notice, create a ripe atmosphere for terror, not even requiring the cover of night to unsettle. Crisp cinematography captures the city in all of its dilapidated iconography, despite the incredulous faux-doc style.
It’s when the characters open their mouths and do things, though, that Chernobyl Diaries falls apart. Fratboy banter defines much of the option portions, as do stereotypical Russian gangsters, and most notably, Natalie, a would-be bimbo who appears to wear as tight a sweater as is humanly possible throughout. Fake-out scares also prove repetitive and boring as tour guide Yuri drags the youngsters through Prypiat.
On a basic level, what the film fails to do is get us to root for its protagonists – rather, we might find ourselves cheering for the largely-unseen enemy to finish them off. It is the idiocy of the characters that primarily diminishes plausibility, beginning with them accepting such a sketchy assignment in the first place, before they touch irradiated material, and decide it is smart to split up in opposite directions. These maddening errors in judgement go beyond mere shock and awe, removing us from the scenario and reminding us that we are indeed watching a film.
Not that the basic plotting helps much anyway; it’s very silly. Contrivances pile on from the moment their van’s wires end up cut, with everything that possibly could go wrong in fact going wrong, before they find themselves confronted with – well, that’d be telling. Needless to say, lots of incoherent screaming in the dark and camera shaking ensues, undermining the performances – which actually capture the hysteria of the situation fairly well – as well as the quickly diminishing feeling of suspense. It’s all been there, done that, and a giant bear ends up getting the biggest scare rather than the more insidious forces lying in wait.
Arbitrary horror formula has the hapless characters running around in circles, leading them away from a safe haven, and when rescue seems close, the faux-jubilation – just before the rug is unceremoniously pulled out – feels so predictable and rote. We don’t ever get an especially clear shot of the assailants, hidden in bleakly dim hallways as they drag poor souls off into the darkness, which becomes tiresome long before pic’s end. The ending, meanwhile, is outside the stratosphere in the offensively sequel-baiting stakes.
Chernobyl Diaries might have worked if in the end it was all an elaborate prank masterminded by Uri to give people the “authentic Chernobyl experience”. This would explain away all the contrivance and reliance upon clichéd horror tropes, but alas, beyond their admittedly inspired setting, the filmmakers lack even an iota of invention.
Chernobyl Diaries is in cinemas Friday.