[25 May 2012]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Twenty-six years ago, in a small municipality named Pripyat in what was then the Soviet Union (now the Ukraine), the local business literally exploded. The village, created for the family and workers of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, was quickly abandoned with little advance warning. As Reactor #4 ‘became airborne’ and started spreading hazardous fallout, a ghost town was created overnight. Families fled without time to take anything with them. Now, two-plus decades later, the eerie locale with its cinderblock ruins is an extreme tourism destination, the radiation levels low enough to allow outsiders in for brief periods of time - or at least, that’s the premise of the latest from Paranormal Activity creator Oren Peli. He has taken this intriguing backdrop and fashioned it to a sort of urban legend look at what…or who…might have been left behind.
Sadly, the answer is a bunch of nonsense. The software programmer turned fright franchise mastermind did indeed produce and co-author the promising Chernobyl Diaries, bringing newcomer Bradley Parker to aid in the scripting and directing. Avoiding the found footage conceit that made Activity the buzzed about blockbuster of 2007, we get a group of American tourists visiting Eastern Europe. There, they meet up with a mysterious ex-military tour guide named Uri and a couple of British backpackers. The idea - take a quickie tour of Pripyat before heading to Moscow. The problem - the supposed deserted area is apparently thriving with someone…or something…with an insatiable bloodlust and a desire to kill. Naturally, they all end up stuck there for the night.
As an idea for a horror film, it’s not really new. Unsuspecting victims arriving somewhere that they shouldn’t has long been a part of the genre dynamic. But with its unique backstory and cinematically fudged backdrop (Peli and friends couldn’t film in the actual area), there is a great deal of potential here. Unfortunately, Chernobyl Diaries pisses away its possibilities early and often. Instead, we are forced to sit through endless minutes of ‘character’ before everything goes S&S - screams and shocks (you could add another “S” word to that as well, if you get the meaning…). Yes, this is another movie where suspense is shuttled aside for actors yelling at the top of their lungs and many meaningless things going much more than ‘bump’ in the Ukrainian night.
For a while, we don’t mind the formula. We need something familiar to fill in the blanks Peli and Parker can’t readily provide much more than that. We need the truisms, the fighting siblings (one’s practical, the other’s a wild eyed dreamer), the cheeky English bloke, and the hot, chesty honeys. We also need the brooding outsider, the mutant fish, and the weird look the guards give everyone when they initially try to cross over into Pripyat. We’re horror fans - we get it. But then the movie starts to slowly fall apart. Once the tour of the spooky buildings is completely and the first false scare of the show is revealed, there’s no more desire for narrative flow. Instead, it’s all chaos - individuals running around shouting, their screams and squeals doing little except giving one a headache.
By the time our interchangeable characters are trapped for a second night in the area (yes, the whole “limited exposure to radioactivity” angle gets dumped for the sake of convenience, and plot contrivance) we want the real threat to emerge. As with almost everything else here, upon arrival, it is poorly managed and even underwhelming. Without spoiling much, imagine the enemy facing Bob and Doug Mackenzie at the beginning of Strange Brew (for the film within a film) mixed with every crazed cannibal cliche you can think of and you’ll begin to get the idea. After the explanation, the fear is as farcical as an early Hammer film. If Parker was a better director, none of this would manner. Instead, he has to keep referencing Activity‘s original gimmick - home video - to keep his audience interested.
It doesn’t work. Chernobyl Diaries fails because it doesn’t universalize its fear. It doesn’t crawl under your skin and creep you out. Instead, it hopes you buy into the fascinating if fake Pripyat, care that the characters are in some kind of trouble, and shiver as they run in and around a bunch of concrete compounds at night. There are individual moments that stand out - a sudden pack of rabid dogs, a motionless figure off in the distance - but these are few and far between. Instead, the camera does everything documentary-style, struggling to keep up with everyone as they literally bounce off the walls.
If it sounds like the standard zombie/unseen threat set-up, you’d be partially right. The problem here, as in any undead effort that skimps on the story, is a lack of hope. Once Uri disappears as part of the plot (he’s the only one who appears capable of calming things down and saving the day), we are left with chattering ninnies. No one has a bright idea and every decision is made in an offhand, thoughtless manner. Yes, this may be more ‘realistic,’ but in an entertainment, it’s also ridiculous. We want to identify, to feel that we could be part of this group of survivors and find our way out. Here, sprinting willy-nilly through an arguably atmospheric setting, our actors only annoy. We don’t want to put ourselves in their place. We want to be as far away from their ear-piercing performances as possible.
Of course, none of this will matter to the post-millennial fright fan, the aficionado raised on a steady two-decade plus diet of subpar straight to video/DVD terror. They’re the ones who made the three (and counting) Paranormal Activity films box office gold. They won’t care that there’s nothing here besides noise and nonsense. Instead, they’ll turn the entire experience into one long laugh-specked experience. It’s depressing, really. For the first 70 years of the genre, there was a balance between legitimate dread and the bottom line. Now, horror is all about making money. Peli proved he had the Midas touch when he turned 80 minutes of dull camcorder nothing into the next Blair Witch Project. Without the prevalent POV gimmick, Chernobyl Diaries must rely on standard scare tactics. It falls significantly short.