From Oren Peli, writer and director of Paranormal Activity, comes Chernobyl Diaries, a suspenseful nuclear horror. This time Oren Peli hands his story over to debut director Bradley Parker who supervised the visual effects for vampire horror Let Me In. Chernobyl Diaries follows six backpackers as they are tempted by extreme tourism and take a guided visit to Pripyat, the former home to employees of Chernobyl’s nuclear reactor. Breaking into Chernobyl’s exclusion zone, the group find themselves isolated in the abandoned town when night falls and it soon becomes clear that they are not alone.
The film opens to a montage of home-movies made on the backpackers’ tour of Europe, backed by Supergrass’ 90s indie tune ‘Alright’. Wooden acting, that feels more like something from The Only Way Is Essex than a big screen blockbuster, introduces the backpackers as disposable characters. A future marriage proposal is set up, along with another love interest, but there’s nothing particularly interesting about any of these characters and it’s easy to assume they will meet an untimely end. The script seems clumsy in these opening scenes and background information, for anyone unfamiliar with the Chernobyl disaster, is delivered in an obvious and clunky way – ‘You guys heard of Chernobyl?’ asks the alpha male backpacker, ‘Isn’t that where the nuclear disaster happened?’ replies the apprehensive blonde.
The rest of Chernobyl Diaries is similarly filmed in home-movie style with an intermittently shaky camera – a now overused feature of many modern horror movies. What’s odd in this case is that none of the characters actually appear to be recording the movie. Neither is it explained why the film is titled ‘diaries’ when not a single diary is mentioned.
Despite superficial characterisation, Chernobyl Diaries builds suspense well. The setting is powerful – the desolate and decaying buildings of Pripyat (actually filmed on location in Serbia and Hungary) being reclaimed by unrelenting nature have a real sense of atmosphere. The script builds anxiety from a believable base, starting with things we know to be real. The threat of nocturnal animals, principally wild dogs that appear rabid in their savagery, is both convincing and frightening.
When the group become stranded as night falls, panic sets in almost too quickly and the group seem more afraid of the dark than the very real threat of radiation exposure. Even so, Chernobyl Diaries’ film makers use the light and shadows very well to maintain the suspense. At times, the use of mobile phones as the only light source brings an eerie mood to the events.
Chernobyl Diaries has a lot of potential with an atmospheric location and a true life event that taps into our very darkest fears
Unfortunately, Chernobyl Diaries loses its way as it develops the scares from the real to the supernatural. There are some claustrophobic moments, but it mostly drifts off into running and screaming. As it moves towards its finale, Chernobyl Diaries can’t seem to make up its mind what type of horror movie it wants to be and grabs at too many different aspects of the genre. Its ending is dull and something of a let down when compared with the suspense and believability of its first half.
Chernobyl Diaries has a lot of potential with an atmospheric location and a true life event that taps into our very darkest fears. But a strong start degenerates into stereotypical teen horror. Chernobyl Diaries feels like a missed opportunity, failing to deliver the powerful nuclear disaster horror that its location could have harnessed.
VERDICT: ✪ ✪ ✪
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