‘Chernobyl Diaries’ creates a horrifying atmosphere, despite a weak story

Devin Kelley in 'Chernobyl Diaries' — Photo courtesy of Katalin Vermes

Chernobyl Diaries, the new film from director Bradley Parker and co-writer Oren Peli, falls into most of the obvious traps of the horror genre. There’s a car that doesn’t start. There’s a bunch of good-looking 20-somethings with their whole life ahead of them. There’s rampage, with each cast member picked off one by one. There’s spooky scenes with half-open doors and flashlights that wander in the dark. You’ve seen it all before.

Yet, Chernobyl Diaries succeeds beyond its expectations. This is chiefly for the wonderfully bizarre atmosphere that Parker and company are able to create. Set amid the abandoned ruins of the Chernobyl nuclear factory and the nearby city that housed the facility’s workers, this 90-minute fright fest stresses the scenery and its strange absence of humanity. We see buildings overgrown with weeds. We see a Ferris wheel stopped in time, ready for its next passenger. We work our way through a network of forgotten tunnels, kitchens and apartments. Everything looks authentic and not like a Hollywood set.

The Chernobyl disaster, which occurred more than 25 years ago, left a nuclear legacy for this devastated area of the Ukraine. Residents were shipped out quickly and the entire area was locked down. Having a horror film revisit the tragedy is a logical choice. And the way we travel back to this contaminated area is through the eyes of Chris (Jesse McCartney) and Paul (Jonathan Sadowski), two brothers who decide to book an “extreme tourism” trip into the heart of Pripyat, the abandoned city next to the nuclear facility. Tagging along for the ride is Natalie (Olivia Dudley), Chris’ soon-to-be fiancé, and Amanda (Devin Kelley), Natalie’s best friend.

All four of these main actors are impressive, at least for horror movie standards. They produce believable screams and try to pump life into the paint-by-numbers script, penned by Peli, Carey Van Dyke and Shane Van Dyke. Their efforts are somewhat wasted because Chris, Paul, Natalie and Amanda are one-note characters who play a simple game of “Ten Little Indians.” They are simply inserted into the story to serve as victims.

The group’s tour guide is Uri (Dimitri Diatchenko), a man who specializes in tours of Pripyat, the abandoned city on the outskirts of Chernobyl. Rounding out the crew are the ubiquitous European backpackers: Zoe (Ingrid Bolsø Berdal) and Michael (Nathan Phillips).

'Chernobyl Diaries' — Photo courtesy of Katalin Vermes

Traveling into the heart of the fallout zone, the group encounters problem after problem. Their checklist is extensive and becomes increasingly scary as the movie progresses. There are radioactive fish with sharp teeth, a ferocious bear and zombie-looking mutants (presumably people who have lived in the area since the accident). All the way, we are treated to post-apocalpytic visuals that create a maddening sense of claustrophobia and dread. This is like a paintball game from hell. It’s up to this group of travelers to stay one step ahead of these blood-sucking monsters, but the advantage is clearly with the attackers. It’s their warped playground, and escape seems futile.

Thankfully, the film is shot as a regular movie, and not some found-footage thriller. Peli, the man behind the Paranormal Activity franchise and TV’s The River, is the king of found footage. But the gimmicks were growing old, so it’s nice to see a feature film that stills keeps the frantic camerawork, but moves beyond one character being forced to carry the camera.

There’s not much to Chernobyl Diaries. Its 90 minutes come and go without too many earth-shattering moments. However, the atmosphere achieved by this film will haunt audience members for days. It’s one of the finest examples of creepy, haunting horror in some time. We don’t care too much about these characters, but we do know one thing: Please, oh please, never let the car break down in a nuclear fallout zone. There’s no telling what may happen.

By John Soltes / Publisher / John@HollywoodSoapbox.com

  • Chernobyl Diaries

  • 2012

  • Directed by Bradley Parker

  • Written by Oren Peli, Shane Van Dyke and Carey Van Dyke

  • Starring Jonathan Sadowski, Nathan Phillips, Jesse McCartney, Devin Kelley, Olivia Dudley, Dimitri Diatchenko and Ingrid Bolsø Berdal

  • Running time: 90 minutes

  • Rated R for violence, some bloody images and pervasive language

  • Rating: ★★★☆

John Soltes

John Soltes is an award-winning journalist. His articles have appeared in The New York Times, The Hollywood Reporter, New Jersey Monthly and at Time.com, among other publications. E-mail him at john@hollywoodsoapbox.com

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