There’s not really a heck of a lot to say about Chernobyl Diaries, the latest microbudgeted horror from the brain of Paranormal Activity mastermind Oren Peli, but that shouldn’t really be taken in an altogether negative fashion. About as standard as a horror film can get, genre buffs who love their jump scares and spooky noises will find enough to like here to warrant a recommendation, and first time director Brad Parker does some really interesting things here on a technical level, but overall there’s never any doubt where Peli’s story is headed or how it’s getting there. Still, Chernobyl Diaries at least has the sense to cop to its formula up front and hits its beats with the precision of a surgeon’s scalpel.
Four American tourists – two brothers (Jonathan Sadowski and Jesse McCartney) and two girls (Olivia Taylor Dudley and Devin Kelley), one of whom is about to be proposed to – and an Aussie couple (Ingrid Bosol Berdal and Nathan Phillips) join up just outside of Kiev while travelling across Russia to join an “extreme tourism” jaunt to the abandoned ghost town of Pripyat in what is now Ukraine. Infamous for the tragic 1986 meltdown of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power plant, residents were forced to flee without taking anything with them leading to the place becoming a haunting, desolate wasteland. Unfortunately for these horror movie clichés, something has stayed behind and their previously competent tour guide (Dimitri Diatchenko) can’t get them out of a place they illegally snuck into in the first place.
While it’s a departure from the “found footage” sub-genre for writer Peli, the film has an almost documentary-like intimacy (which, if you want to be crass about it, means a whole lot of running, shaky cam, and long takes) and story beats that wouldn’t feel out of place in the writer’s comfort zone. Peli also loads on the standard “we’re lost, scared, and in the dark” tropes quite liberally. There’s about fifteen to twenty sequences of people running away from things, scenes where something pops up out of the dark, scenes where people get separated and are forced to should each other’s names repeatedly, the final video left behind by someone who’s dying, spooky shadows, creepy kids that might be hallucinations, a Geiger counter that literally spells out to the audience when danger is around, and plenty more stereotypes of this kind of film that I’m probably forgetting.
But, if you can hang with that sort of movie without getting bored (and even at a lean 85 minutes, restlessness does start to set in), there’s some great stuff going on beyond the margins of the actual film. Peli throws in some nice jabs in his script about the types of films he’s best known for. The cast all rises to the occasion, putting in equally strong and physical performances. The recreation of Pripyat in Serbian and Hungarian locations feels authentic and well thought out without making it look like a standard horror movie setting. Parker shows an assured hand and always keeps the action moving, even using elaborate camera moves in action scenes that feel fluid and unforced.
It’s all suitably grim and gritty even if it still manages to be a film where audiences will be divided over whether or not there’s an actual payoff, but this type of film has also been done far worse in recent years. I guess the biggest complaint would be that the title is totally misleading since the film isn’t actually a diary of anything. Sure, we get a title card that states that the action takes place roughly ten years ago, but this also isn’t a found footage movie. What’s up with that?