A handful of twenty-somethings travel to Europe and hit the road. They journey across two continents from France to Russia seeing the sights, meeting the people, and embracing the culture. They end their trip after a brief visit to Pripyat—the site adjacent to the Chernobyl disaster—and they all return to America a little wiser, a little more worldly, and enriched with some wonderful experiences they’ll never forget. Chernobyl Diaries is a modern day retelling of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road.
Nah, I’m just fucking with you. These kids don’t learn a damn thing; instead, they are brutally massacred by a pack of hairless Soviet mutants. What more do you expect from a cheapie Hollywood horror flick? Cultural or spiritual enlightenment? Fuck you, hipster. Oren Peli (of Paranormal Activty fame) and director Bradley Parker have produced a movie that’s pretty much like every other The Hills Have Eyes clone ever made, and if you want to see a new horror movie this weekend, well, that’s what they have for you, and that’s what you’re going to fucking watch.
That said, Chernobyl Diaries isn’t a terrible horror flick by any means. It simply follows all of the standard conventions of ‘70s and ‘80s horror movies to the letter. Here we have a group of six attractive kids and one grizzled Ukrainian tour guide stupidly wandering into a dangerous situation. Not that traveling to Pripyat is dangerous in real life—people do it every day—but in the reality of this movie, the military has shut the area down for reasons of public safety. Of course, since we start out with seven victims, we can all but rest assured that no more than two of them will survive the scenario; and more likely than not, everyone will die. The horror gods demand it.
Watching this movie is like watching a prequel to Joss Whedon’s terrific Cabin in the Woods, but with the omission of all of the scenes of control room operators satirically commenting on the proceedings. The victims all commit to the same stupid horror movie mistakes, the mutants hunt them down one by one, and the remaining characters are all carefully funneled into a final horrific confrontation. There’s an extreme familiarity to the movie.
Chernobyl Diaries at least isn’t torture porn. The movie is light on gruesome dismemberment. The director strives for tension building followed by legitimate scares, and he wisely keeps his monsters hidden in the shadows and out of frame since there’s no way makeup and CGI can compete with the horrors the human brain can conjure up.
The biggest asset to the film is its eerie location. Pripyat looks like an unkempt graveyard. Just filming people walk through those silent empty streets evokes a sense of dread. Apparently Oren Peli fell upon the idea for this movie after laying his eyes on a picture of a girl riding a motorcycle through the abandoned streets of Pripyat. That’s certainly a fine concept for a film, and this movie gets by pretty well on its concept, but Peli and Parker don’t take the story any further. This is basically Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes set in Chernobyl and starring models pulled from the JC Penny Catalogue.
In all fairness, however, Chernobyl Diaries could have been a whole lot worse. It hits all of the marks it needs to hit to qualify as a traditional, no-frills American horror movie. It just doesn’t attempt to distinguish itself from myriad other horror films by adding something fresh to the formula. But there are thousands of horror junkies out there who consume these kinds of movies like crack, and I think they will be pleased by this production. The filmmakers aren’t trying to insult anyone’s intelligence here; they simply know their built-in audience and are attempting to cater to them.
Other than the sense of been-there-done-that which pervades Chernobyl Diaries, the only issue I have with the movie is that Oren Peli’s name is plastered all over the credits and advertising materials as if he’s the second coming of John Carpenter. He made his name by filming Paranormal Activity on a non-existent budget and then turning around and generating millions off of it. I admire him personally for his accomplishment, but I think a lot of people tend to overlook the fact that Paranormal Activity wasn’t a very good movie. Since then, he’s produced a failed tv show, a couple of mediocre sequels, and this movie. If Peli insists on having his name bandied around like he’s Ridley Scott or Steven Spielberg, he needs to bring more to the table than Chernobyl Diaries.