Genre: Creature Feature
Director: Bradley Parker
Availability: Still in theaters
If my horror movie doesn't start off with a group of beautiful twenty-somethings piling into a vehicle to journey out to some unknown and questionable location that will inevitably get them all killed, then I don't want to see it. (I'm only kidding.) (kind of.) Luckily, after your standard montage of video clips which establish that this particular group of beautiful twenty-somethings are fun and goofy and love each other, and after a few short scenes establishing the relevant relationships of everyone involved, we do just that.
Our players are the usual cast of horror movie stereotypes. You've got Ineffectual Nice Guy, Sarcastic Arrogant Guy, Ineffectual Blonde Girl, Take Charge Brunette, and since we're in a foreign country toss in a few adventurous backpacking Australians and our imposing Ukrainian "extreme tour" guide Yurii, and our players are complete.
As we know from the trailer, they all set off to visit the abandoned city of Prypia, which was near the site of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant disaster of 1986. Here in the city we have crumbling, hollowed out shells of apartment buildings and dark underground recreational facilities, a decaying ferris wheel, a creepy river which is the home to mysterious deformed piranha-like fish, a disintegrating bridge, a giant field of rusty cars and buses, the nuclear power plant that looms in the hazy distance, overgrown walkways that are choked with vines and trees, and scattered remnants of the lives that used to occupy this space. An extremely potent location for a horror movie, to be sure.
The movie kicks into high gear once they've established that they're stranded in Prypia overnight. It's then, once darkness falls, that the beasts come out and terrorize the shit out of them. It's pretty clear from the get go that the wild animals are aggressive and dangerous. Yurri makes a claim that it's unusual for the animals to come this far into the city, but it matters not, they're here and they want to eat you. One of the aspects that I actually appreciated is that the first night passes relatively quickly, and once daylight comes there's this sense of relief that gives birth to bravery. Usually in a horror movie of this nature the first night is the only night and it's then that all of the action takes place, the coming of dawn means the end of the movie. But in Chernobyl Diaries the story takes place over the course of two days and two nights. Though we never see anyone use the bathroom or eat any food, and no one ever complains about needing to do those necessities, such is the ways of the horror movie.
It's not until day #2 that we're introduced to the mutants, the real threat to our dwindling players. The mutants are apparently camera shy though because we never get a clear look at them, a decision made from the result of a low budget or a storytelling decision, one can't be too sure. But they're there, and they're numbers are great. They lurk in the background, closing in as though a pack of wild dogs, diverting your attention over there so they can sneak up behind you and take you unawares. The tension and scares throughout Chernobyl Diaries are potent, and whether you expect the jump or not there's always another one waiting in the dark corners to catch you off guard.
And then there's the silent threat of radiation. The levels are low in certain parts of the city, safe enough for exposure for short periods of time, and they have a Geiger counter that starts to beep once they enter a place where the radiation is dangerous. This is of course an issue once they're on the run and being drawn out of the city toward the nuclear power plant. The Geiger counter goes off constantly but they can't turn back, they can't run in the other direction because they're being herded like cattle.
The end of Chernobyl Diaries has a nice little twist that I didn't see coming. And it was refreshing to see a horror movie that was atmospheric, intense, and scary, set in a location that was completely unique and offered no shelter, no place to hide. And they made full use of this set. They explored many buildings and and tunnels and rooms, both in the daylight and in the dark, so your senses were always on edge in unexplored, new territory. However, they never explain why the title of the movie eludes to the idea that this is a diary of what happened. It's not a "documentary style" movie, nor is this "found footage". They do use the shaky cam method of filming but the cameraman isn't an actual character so it's simply a stylistic choice of shooting. Ah well, it's hardly a gripe that I will hold against it.
Chernobyl Diaries was written by Oren Peli, the same man who brought us Paranormal Activity 1 & 2, so it's no surprise that the jumps scenes are plentiful and the atmosphere is heavy with the anticipation of all that is bound to come.
But my positive take on Chernobyl Diares is not a popular stance. In fact, both critics and audience alike seem to flat out hate this movie. One reviewer's review was a simple, "Fuck you". Normally I don't really address the bad reception that a horror movie gets. As a fan of the genre I have a very deep understanding that the qualities in a horror movie that I find to be enjoyable, others find to be "tired" or "cliched". I know that some people hate too much gore, and others never seem to think there's enough of it. Not everyone is a fan of the "less is more" school of horror movies, and yet others don't enjoy anything too jumpy. Every single person who claims to be a fan of the genre, whether they're a reviewer or just an average audience member, has something that they're tired of seeing, a pet peeve, a gripe. Some are overly critical to the point where I wonder why they watch horror movies at all. It's like shopping at a thrift store and being surprised that everything there is used. I'm not saying that in order to enjoy a horror movie you have to throw out all expectations. That you just have to assume they're all going to be bad or cliched. But a good horror movie, not just enjoyable in the so bad it's good way, but a tried and true good horror movie, is like a diamond in the rough. There are maybe 5 truly good horror movies that come out a year. Compare that to the 80 or so horror movies that are released every year and you can see that the odds are working against them. Was Chernobyl Diaries a great horror movie? No. Was it a very good one? Absolutely. And it doesn't deserve such an onslaught of negativity.
I watch a lot of horror movies. It doesn't mean I have a low expectation when I pop in any particular horror movie, but my expectations are adjusted for the genre. Am I surprised when the dialog isn't stellar or the characters are cliche and making bad decisions? No. Do I hold it against the movie? Not necessarily. Am I surprised when the movie is full of horror movie accessories: flashlight, dark hallways, vehicle that won't start, wounded friend, boobs, no cell phones, pointless arguing etc.? No. Do I hold it against the movie? Rarely. In fact, a horror movie can have all of these elements and more if it does its job effectively - scaring and/or shocking me. And I don't know if I liked this movie because I saw it on the big screen while sitting next to a hefty man who visibly braced himself against the scares whenever he anticipated one, or because the movie was simply doing its job effectively, I can't say for sure. But I do know that once Chernobyl Diaries hits DVD it will be added to my horror collection and will be watched on many a dark and stormy night.
4 out of 5 stars