I think we just have to face the fact that we’re living in an age in which the horror genre just plain sucks. It’s devolved from stories with pacing and atmosphere or even just a fearsome slasher with a chill-inducing back story to a bunch of terrified morons running in the darkness and screaming while a faceless killer of some sort chases them. Oh, and the camera is always shaking, because obviously if we’re too dizzy or busy throwing up our popcorn to see what’s going on, it must be horrifying, right?
Okay, so every once in a while we’re gifted with one that follows none of those modern conventions (the recent version of The Woman in Black comes to mind), but Chernobyl Diaries is certainly not that film. Nor does it clearly aspire to be more than a quick cash grab that teens will put down money to text through. Perhaps that’s admirable from a box office receipt-generating standpoint, but as someone who remembers how good (or at the very least, trashy and fun) horror releases used to be, it’s an exercise in pain and occasional nausea.
The story starts out well enough. A group of twenty-somethings are on a trip through Russia to visit Chris’ (Jesse McCartney) brother, Paul (Jonathan Sadowski) who lives in Kiev. Chris has brought along his girlfriend Natalie (Olivia Dudley), who he plans to propose to when they reach Moscow, and her friend Amanda (Devin Kelley) who seems like a solid, resourceful young woman even despite her possible flirtation with the reckless, man-childish Paul.
On the day the group is meant to travel to Moscow, Paul persuades them to delay so they can all go on an “Extreme Tour” of the Chernobyl disaster site and the neighbouring and now abandoned town of Pripyat. It’s at this point that they meet Uri (Dimitri Diatchenko), their shady but affable-enough tour guide and two other accompanying tourists, Australian Michael (Nathan Phillips) and Norwegian Zoe (Ingrid Bolsø Berdal). The atmosphere in this first part of the film is heavy enough to make you uncomfortable wondering just what the fates have in store for this happily clueless group.
Unfortunately, it’s all down hill from the moment the group hits the guard station outside of Pripyat and they’re turned away for a “mysterious” reason. Uri immediately leads them to a back way into the ruined town (one wonders why such a large access point is completely unguarded despite the full-on military guy overkill at the main gate) and the conveniently stupid decisions begin.
The group wanders around the desolate city taking happy group photos as Uri recounts the horrors faced by those who were part of the Chernobyl disaster, and soon they begin to hear odd noises and find animal carcasses that are explained away as the result of too many wild dogs roaming the surrounding forest. As night begins to fall, the group tries to head back to civilization but somehow their truck engine has been tampered with and they’re miles from the nearest help. It also becomes glaringly evident that they are not alone and that wild dogs are not to blame for the cut wires and feeling that something is watching them.
From there, every bad decision that can be made in order to keep the characters as prime targets for horrific murder is made and the body count begins to mount even as the group tells themselves that if they’re able to hang on until morning, help is within their dopey, asking-for-it grasps.
The killers’ identities are never really explained in a way that makes any sort of sense, just that they’ve escaped from somewhere, are disfigured, have a taste for human blood and seem to be impervious to the residual radiation that’s quickly making our “heroes” sicker and sicker by the minute. It’s also impossible to get a good look at them because the camera seems to only want to stay on the mutant-bait who spend 85% of the movie splitting up and running into darkened buildings while shrieking like banshees.
Some may say it’s meant to be Horror crossed with Cinéma Vérité, but I say, pass me the Gravol and I’ll take the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre any day.