Chernobyl Diaries, 2012.
Directed by Bradley Parker.
Starring Jesse McCartney, Jonathan Sadowski, Olivia Taylor Dudley, Devin Kelley, Nathan Phillips, Ingrid Bolsø Berdal, and Dimitri Diatchenko.
Six 'extreme' tourists discover they are not alone during an illegal visit to the abandoned city of Prypiat in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.
I’ll be honest; I went to see Chernobyl Diaries, from first-time director Bradley Parker and writer / producer Oren Peli (mastermind behind the Paranormal Activity series), with a few preconceptions and biases. I’d heard about the controversy it had created, and was expecting a dumb, tasteless, cheap and insulting movie, and was preparing a snarky, scathing review in my head. Yet, watching the movie, while it was dumb, tasteless, cheap and insulting, I cannot deny that I enjoyed it.
So, the plot has a relatively standard set-up. Three Americans backpacking across Europe meet a boisterous and impetuous acquaintance in Kiev, Paul (Jonathan Sadowski; The Goods: Live Hard, Sell Hard), who convinces them to join him on an “extreme” tour of Prypiat, a deserted Ukrainian city within the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. The tour is led by Uri (Dimitri Diatchenko; Burning Palms) a former member of the Soviet special forces, and is joined by another pair of backpackers, Michael (Nathan Phillips; Wolf Creek) and Zoe (Ingrid Bolso Berdal; Cold Prey). As one may expect, their tour does not go to plan, and the group finds themselves terrorised by a terrifying terror.
For those that do not know, the Chernobyl disaster of 1986 was an explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, that has contaminated a 30km zone around the plant with radiation and caused several adverse health effects, including deaths, hospitalizations and birth defects. It was an absolute tragedy in the truest sense of the word, so you can see how those who were affected or have relatives who affected by Chernobyl might take offense at some of the more... outlandish effects the film presents (I’m trying hard to avoid spoilers) and how that might be seen as tasteless.
And yet, that is kind of the point. Chernobyl Diaries is not just a horror film, but an exploitation film, in the same vein as exploitation movies of the 60s, 70s and 80s like Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS, The Gestapo’s Last Orgy or They Saved Hitler’s Brain. Does being an exploitation movie make it good? Of course not, but that explains what it’s trying to do and if you’re a fan of exploitation movies than I think you’ll find a lot to like from the premise. I can’t excuse it for being insulting to Eastern Europeans though: the first three Russians we meet are the usual lechery stereotype, offering to “buy” the female protagonists.
I won’t go into the plot too much though. The premise is interesting, and the radioactive contamination of the area plays nicely into the script, especially in the last act. As with most horror movies, the characters do dumb or stupid things and we are quick to roll our eyes, but there is logic to some of their actions, especially when the threats the group face are tangible, such as wild animals. The cast are the usual cannon fodder; they are the right balance between likeable and annoying that we want to see if they survive, but can also enjoy seeing them get picked off one at a time. The dialogue is fairly silly at times and the acting is passable, although Diatchenko is a great actor and is very interesting to watch, especially as his grizzled army veteran slowly figures out what is going on and grows afraid.
It is a very cheap movie though, with a budget of just $1,000,000. Because of that, the effects on the ‘threat’ of the movie are rather shoddy, and necessitated a lot of camera shaking to keep them out of focus, as well as plenty of shadows and silhouettes. Most of the scares are just characters slowly walking towards doors to slowly open them to reveal... nothing. It’s a very cheap way of creating tension, although I applaud the movie for refraining from relying on jump-scares, as well as filming several sections during the day. In fact, this film looks and sounds good despite its small budget. There is great footage shot at the deserted buildings, as you can see in the trailer, although I don’t believe the film was shot on location in Prypiat, which is a shame.
Like I said earlier, it’s shameless tasteless, very dumb, fairly insulting and definitely cheap, but it kind of works. The script is very film-literate and there are strands from films like Night of the Living Dead and The Hills Have Eyes. While it’s not particularly scary (it’s certainly not as scary as any of Peli’s Paranormal Activity films), it was very tense and manages to create a very foreboding atmosphere. Fans of horror and exploitation movies will appreciate it for what it is: schlocky, entertaining nonsense. It’s also very refreshing to see a horror film that does not rely on excessive amounts of gore and is not another annoying found-footage movie. However, the film, while traditionally shot, uses elements of the found-footage conceit quite well: for instance, characters actually find footage on a phone to play a video of their friends getting attacked, which I thought was quite clever, as we rarely see how the footage in found-footage movies is found! The film feels rather old fashioned, as if it’s from the 90s or early 2000s and I kind of like that, and with a running time of 93 minutes, it doesn’t outstay its welcome.
I don’t know if I’d pay full price to see this, but at a cheap screening, or on DVD, or in a few years when it’s a late-night film on Channel 4, then I’d definitely recommend watching it. I expected to be angry after seeing this, instead I was very entertained.
Flickering Myth Rating - Film: ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Luke Graham is a writer and graduate. If you enjoyed this review, follow him @LukeWGraham and check out his blog here.