Release Date: May 25th, 2012 (US); June 22nd, 2012 (UK)
Genre: Horror; Thriller
Starring: Devin Kelly, Olivia Taylor Dudley, Jesse McCartney, Jonathan Sadowski
When does the term ‘B movie’ become an excuse rather than a justification? Somewhere, surrounded by low-budgets and gooey prosthetics, Roger Corman has an answer to that particular musing. Chernobyl Diaries veils itself as a B movie with its microscopic financials and horror genre tidings, yet it relents from purveying the ingenious soul of said cinematic crop. Director Bradley Parker manages to conjure up an ominous mood — the setting, if you hadn’t already guessed, is Chernobyl — and his primarily indie cast run with the creep-factor for a while, however they ultimately can’t overcome a dreary screenplay that succumbs to the generic scare code. Radiation levels might be increasing, but imagination is struggling to level out from a downward spiral.
Midway through their travels across Europe, Chris (Jesse McCartney), his girlfriend Natalie (Olivia Taylor Dudley) and tag-along Amanda (Devin Kelly) decide to stop off in Kiev to congregate with Chris’ brother Paul (Jonathan Sadowski). Living up to his brash reputation, Paul suggests that the group should take up some extreme venturing, to Pripyat, an abandoned village on the edge of the radiation-infested Chernobyl nuclear reactor. Upon arrival though, it appears that their ghost town is anything but.
It’s this particular setting from which all of the film’s success emits. Though events aren’t shot on actual location — production took to Hungary and Serbia due to the issues posed by surrounding levels of radiation in Chernobyl — Morten Søborg’s cinematography still manages to capture the inevitable haunting of a post-disaster scene. Makeshift Pripyat is like an eerie still-life painting without the life as it languishes in a wonderfully spooky state of urban decay. Hand print markings are shown painted on walls, created by urgent escape and presumably made of blood. Shattered picture frames represent lost livelihoods, the town having emptied in just two days.
Before we reach our destination there’s enough time for a stop off at an exclusion zone checkpoint where the travelling group incur the scathing stare of an intimidating military man as he circles their van to the sound of piercing strings. Not to mention, the occasional sighting of a radiation warning sign. What we see might not be the real Pripyat in the shadow of Chernobyl, but it sure feels that way; the landscape appears genuine, the remnants of nuclear disaster still lingering in the air and therefore, as our bunch of explorers begin their tour, an authentic sense of danger exudes. The horror narrative is armed with instant credibility, edgy and real, but this sadly turns out to be only the film’s only credibility.
Suggestion is often worse than implementation. Implying that something terrible is about to happen or that there could be a spectre lurking in the wings can, and regularly does, induce a great deal of fear. The faux-Chernobyl location provides a disquieting assist that isn’t capitalised on, much to chagrin of the audience, we being an expectant mob after the film’s promising start. Instead of revving the already unsettling mood, Bradley Parker encourages a steadfast meandering towards convention. People are chased by hungry dogs and figures appear in windows, but it’s nothing that hasn’t failed to scare us before. Proceedings never leave ground level and, with the exception of a rumbling animal appearance, fail to truly frighten. Sure you might jump once or twice, but these heart-racing moments have a lazy source. Shattering silence with a loud noise will always naturally create a cheap reaction. Doing so on film is eternally unimaginative and a problem in modern horror.
Speaking of contemporary cracks in the genre, Chernobyl Diaries is as guilty as any when it comes to less-than-average characterisation. The screenplay, written by Paranormal Activity architect Oren Peli and brothers Shane and Carey Van Dyke (of that bloodline), parades characters who collectively boast less of a dimension than a horizontal line. There’s the sensible one Chris, played by musician Jesse McCartney, whose wariness about the Pripyat expedition is an apprehensive foreshadowing of what is to come. His brother Paul is the inciter of mischief, and it just so happens that he manages to get his sibling into yet more trouble — this time though, it might be terminal, so best get some moral repenting done, eh?
Paul is played by Jonathan Sadoswki and both he and McCartney do a decent job at handling their poorly-written characters. In fact most of the remaining cast members are also fine, but they’re also forced to join the aforementioned duo in shilling a dead horse. An exception could be made for Dimitri Diatchenko who plays iffy outing guide Yuri, and who rattles off every line as if he’s reading directly from an exposition-laden script: “We’re now entering the exclusion zone.” It’s highly probable that Diatchenko is indeed an extreme tour leader moonlighting as an actor for one time only. (Turns out he’s been in everything from Indiana Jones to Family Guy.)
Chernobyl Diaries wishes to garner the cult notoriety of a B movie but, in the end, its foundations aren’t sufficiently durable. The set-up arouses an eerie mood prompted by location and is promising. However, this is merely a superficial canvas that fails to disguise the remaining descent into a lack of ingenuity. Truthfully there ain’t a whole lot to say about this, which is the fundamental problem.
It tries to combine the rubble of a fairly recent disaster and postmodern nuclear stigma with slasher scares and atmospheric nip, and it should simply be better.
Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider
Images copyright (©): Warner Bros.