Let’s be absolutely, positively, sparkling clear on this: Chernobyl Diaries is not a found footage film. Forget what you may have heard about the creator of Paranormal Activity (Oren Peli) being involved with this movie; at its core, it’s a documentary-style film about about good-looking (and well-intentioned) kids who get into bad circumstances. There’s nothing award-winning about this movie; it’s not going to change the face of horror movies as we know it. However, it is a movie that grabs your attention and doesn’t let it go until the “Directed by Bradley Parker” credit explodes onto the screen. The post-90s horror film tends to be either self-referential and snarky or overly gory and dehumanizing; Chernobyl Diaries avoids either of these trappings, instead being a fly-on-the-wall documentary-style suspense film with little filler and lots of tension.
Most horror movies are generally about good people dropped into bad situations, from the Lon Chaney classics to Drew Goddard’s recent film The Cabin In The Woods. Chernobyl Diaries is no different, with seven folks taking an illegal tour of Prypiat, the town where workers from the Chernobyl nuclear power plant lived. With the power plant viewable at a distance from the town, Prypiat has since been evacuated and deserted, essentially becoming a modern ghost town. When you think of “ghost towns”, I’m willing to bet you’re thinking of Old West towns where the saloons are shuttered and life looks like a still photograph from the 1800s; Prypiat is that town, but picture cars and decor from 1980s Russia instead of tumbleweeds and empty horse troughs. Expatriate Paul (Jonathan Sadowski) has arranged for his brother Chris (Jesse McCartney) and two female friends (Olivia Taylor Dudley and Devin Kelly) to take a tour of this infamous town, along with two other backpackers. Along with their guide Uri (Dimitri Diatchenko), they sidestep a closed Army checkpoint and enter the town by using an abandoned road, eager to take pictures and see a part of history. But when they get back to the car, that’s when everything goes completely south for them, and that’s where the movie takes off and not only runs, but sprints to its finish.
“One bad decision begets ten more” seems to be the message of the movie, if there was any message to be had. However, Chernobyl Diaries is not a “message movie”; instead, it is a short and sweet 90 minutes of tension and fright. At first, I thought this was going to be a Hostel-type movie, where the guide happens to be in on the shenanigans that lay ahead for the hapless tourists. Instead, it’s a whip-cracking documentary-style film that manages to hold your attention and heap suspense upon you until the inevitable payoff. There are no “good girl”, “bad girl”, “jerk” tropes to be had here; all the characters do not play standard horror movie victims. There’s no “oh, look, I sprained my ankle when I fell” moments to cheapen the tension or make you groan. Instead, the actors portray actual human beings in less-than-ideal settings, and the movie is stronger for it. It could have easily lapsed into a dumb horror movie, where the heroine triumphs over all and manages to save the day; it could have easily become a movie where you dismiss everyone and everything to the point of comedy. Chernobyl Diaries stays away from idiocy (except for the decision to actually go to this town) and lets its occurrences and situations play out naturally.
Well, as naturally as a situation like this can play out.
Director Bradley Parker spends the first thirty minutes in the windup for his pitch; after that, it’s a 100-mile-per-hour fastball into the heart of the repercussions of one of the most affecting real-life modern disasters. There is genuine terror to be had here; a radiation-blanketed ghost town yields many surprises, and Parker (directing from a script by Oren Peli and Carey and Shane Van Dyke) uncovers a lot of them. Every nightmare I’ve had about being alone in a basement or a deserted city came true in this movie, complete with things that defy description and comprehension. Like most horror movies, you watch it and you’re done with it; however, in that one viewing, you’ll be treated to the kind of suspense and terror that make your feet pound on the floor with anticipation and your hands go to your mouth on their way to cover your eyes. And don’t be surprised if you let out a squeal of fright or two.
FINAL GRADE: B+
Reel Film News Movie Review by Eddie Pasa