The film industry is not exactly synonymous with taste and decency. Indeed, the roots of the horror genre are mired in exploitation and cheap shock tactics. ‘Sensationalising tragedy’ has been the default position of Hollywood since its inception. Still, if you are going to be cynical enough to use the disaster of Chernobyl as the premise for a cheaply produced American horror pic, there are at least a couple of interesting routes you can take. You can opt for a ‘Crazies’ approach, with mutation as metaphor. Or you can throw taste out of the window entirely and deliver a rancid Troma-slice of pulp, with mutations and sick yuks. Either of these at least has the potential to be something at least mildly interesting.
It should come as a surprise to no-one that the creator of the last three Paranormal Activity movies opted for neither of these.
Instead, Chernobyl Diaries is sadly all too resonant of the wearying, knackered, grab-bag approach of so much modish horror. A moribund and surprisingly lengthy-feeling 85 minute plod through all the anticipated clichés, it delivers zero chills before signing off with the now-obligatory (and tiresome) jump-cut final shot (*cue nu-metal track!*).
The set-up, naturally, is *cut and paste first line Wikipedia plot entry of every American teen horror film ever* but this time the kids are travelling in Europe (wow, we’re homaging Hostel already). Baby-faced goody two shoes Chris and girlfriend Natalie want to get to Russia for a romantic detour but ‘wild and crazy’ (tiresome, self-regarding bell-end) ‘bro Paul wants to do something different – and impress Natalie’s ‘creative’ (she has a camera) best friend Amanda. So he initiates an ‘extreme trip’ with ex-military man Uri for the group to visit Prypiat, an abandoned town in the vicinity of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant.
The journey to Prypiat is the sole interesting segment of the film. Sinister guards warn against pursuing any further but hey, the crazy kids wanna just have, like, a fuckin’ RADIATION PARTY dude – so on they go. The desolate stillness of the isolated location (Hungary and Serbia is where the film was shot) has great potential for ramping fear. There is a surreal/scary/funny moment with a giant bear which hints at an interesting version of the film that ultimately never got made. The gruff humour of guide Uri (the sole funny likeable character in the film) works well.
But once our protagonists are under siege and trapped inside a van, all of the life, air and interest evaporates and we are left in the company of some very stupid protagonists who shout, cry, whimper, get confused, bleed and say “WHY IS THIS HAPPENING?” very loudly. Why indeed? (Answer: Paranormal Activity series’ worldwide box office gross).
For much of the last third I was reminded of Josh Trank’s recent found footage superhero movie Chronicle. Not that the films are particularly alike in any way (I wasn’t crazy about that film but it’s a masterpiece compared to this), but that anyone who saw it will remember a script that largely consisted of characters shouting “ANDREW!” repeatedly. In this film, it’s “CHRIS!” But it could’ve been any generic name for all I cared, as these torchlight-waving dolts scamper from a barely visible threat that we know nothing of, nor have been invited to care much about.
I left the screening room gasping for air and fearing having to write about this film, knowing it would be in no way edifying for me or anyone reading. And right now I can feel my own energies drifting, fading. I can only apologise. The torpor of the film infected my eyes, ears and brain. By the end of the review I may be dead. If I survive, maybe I’ll take up a new hobby.
With Paranormal Activity, Oren Peli worked the simple and effective premise for all it’s worth and mined a good few cheap scares in the process. He knows how to make a scary movie. But those films tapped into universal horror, so even if the performances were a bit ropey the fear was still real, resonant. Visiting the site of radioactive tragedy and treating it like a giant theme park is a less universal experience, limited mostly to absolute tools in horror movies.
So far as I can see, very little care or passion was invested in Chernobyl Diaries and as with any shoddy item there comes an inevitable hazard warning: avoid exposure to this out-of-date product. It’s contaminated. With boredom.