Nothing is scarier than when a horror movie weaves a bit of truth into its tale. Chernobyl Diaries is based around a real-life horror story – that of the devastating meltdown of the nuclear reactor in Chernobyl in 1986. Throw a handful of young, hip tourists into an exclusive “extreme tourism” trip to Chernobyl’s deserted neighboring city, add some sneakily stalking creatures, and you have one heck of scare-fest on your hands. Thanks to Bradley Parker and Oren Peli, Chernobyl Diaries favors old-fashioned suspense over gore, and pure creepiness for graphic violence. Just goes to show you, if it’s not broken, don’t fix it. Likewise, if your van’s broken down in an irradiated, abandoned town full of mutated creatures, then fix it. Fix it fast.
Chernobyl Diaries (CD) begins with two happy lovebirds, Chris (Jesse McCartney) and Natalie (Olivia Taylor Dudley), who decide to take a trip through Europe on their way to Kiev to visit Chris’s brother, Paul (Jonathon Sandowski). Natalie’s recently single friend, Amanda (Devin Kelly), tags along for the ride, rounding out the numbers a bit. Paul wants to show his American visitors a good time, and manages to secure a little trip to a deserted suburb of Chernobyl called Pripyat, led by rogue tour guide Uri (Dimitri Diatchenko). Two backpackers, Michael (Nathan Phillips) and Zoe (Ingrid Bolsø Berdal), join the group, and they are all off to see a historical and exhilarating part of Russia that few have seen since the accident. Two hours away from civilization, what began as an extreme tourist trip quickly becomes an extreme nightmare.
Like most horror movies, CD finds ways to place the characters in harm’s way on more than one occasion. While one character in particular seems able to coax the others into making many poor decisions, the motives for such risky behavior are actually pretty sound. There are good reasons to search through the abandoned buildings, or to walk through the woods after dark, or to check inside the bullet-riddled bus. As you’re sitting in your safe theater seat, cursing them for putting you through what will undoubtedly be high anxiety moments, you can understand their reasons for wanting to do so. While these scenes will have you clutching your seat, many of the events happen more as a turn of fate, completely out of the characters’ hands. This adds a bit of realism and believability through the storytelling and sequence of events, adding to the suspense and scare-factor.
An interesting component to CD is the hand-held camera work. This trick isn’t anything new to the genre, but the direction given to the camera guys made it feel new, almost pulling you into the movie and making you feel as though you were really there with them – running, screaming, and glancing over your shoulder, without the camera feeling out of control or over-the-top shaky. There are a few holes in CD‘s story, as well as some occasionally lacking writing and dialog delivery, but these are easily overlooked as you slowly get drawn into suspending belief. We aren’t allowed to learn much about our characters, nor do the characters learn much about each other, but they are sympathetic and raw enough for us to put some roots into them, no matter how cookie-cutter they may seem at first.
A major character in Chernobyl Diaries is none other than the setting itself. With parts of the film actually shot on location, CD is given a realism that simply can’t be replicated on a set. This goes for the music as well, with Parker opting for mostly silence during the scary scenes, and muting the action (leaving only eerie music) during mini-montages and moments of shock for the characters.
The best part about CD is that the audience is kept in suspense about the creatures that hunt our ensemble. Many movies loose their ‘scare factor’ the moment they begin revealing their creepy antagonists. We are slow to learn the who, what, and why’s of these creatures. In a way, it’s a bit disappointing in the end, since we are all programmed to want a thoroughly explained conclusion. If you think about it though, what scares us the most is what we don’t know. This is a major point made throughout CD. All of these factors will leave fans of scares and horror pleasantly afraid and more than satisfied with their night out at the movies.
I give Chernobyl Diaries 3.5 “Radioactive Bears from Hell” out of 5.
by Rachael Edwards-Hite