‘Off the map’ seems to be the new thing for horror movies to exploit, and tourists in Russia have gotten the worst of it in 2012. After a spot of alien horror in The Darkest Hour, another film with a nonsensical title has arrived to take advantage of a not often seen location, actually going one step further by putting the cannon fodder into off-limits disaster site, Pripyat, the city evacuated after the Chernobyl disaster in 1986. It’s a neat little concept, and one that looked pretty decently executed in the film’s trailer, but can Oren (Paranormal Activity) Peli’s latest horror wow as much as his famously low-budget debut?
To set up the dire situation, we meet four friends, Chris (Jesse McCartney), big brother Paul (Jonathan Sadowski), girlfriend Natalie (Olivia Dudley), friend Amanda (Devin Kelley) and fellow travellers Michael (Nathan Phillips) and Zoe (Ingrid Bolso Berdal), as they go on a bit of ‘extreme tourism’ to Chernobyl.
As it’s the start of a horror movie, we know this is a stupid idea, but they really should too, as the trip doesn’t really sound like a particularly fun day out. Once they get there and take a look around, their mode of transport is sabotaged by someone or something, and they must survive alone while searching for the way out.
The film is unbelievably slow in getting to the point and, instead of spending precious minutes building the tension for later, we spend it in the company of six barely written and pretty annoying characters. The best thing about the first half of the film is creepy tour guide Uri (Dimitri Diatchenko), who is the most authentic and believable thing about it. While the six young-uns are skipping about and speaking inanities, we’re actually disturbed by the worried look on Uri’s face, and the character provides some much needed comic relief in this otherwise unnecessarily po-faced effort.
Once he and the group are separated, the film takes a turn for the worse and never recovers. To say the scares are lame is an understatement, as the outside forces attacking them in their van turn out to be ordinary wolves and big brown bears. Certainly these are frightening things if faced in real life, but to make them the main threat in a location as rife with possibilities as Chernobyl is just wasteful. Once they’re out of the way, the obvious starts appearing, but it’s too little too late, and the film can’t can’t recover from the false scares and disappointments in earlier scenes.
The tension never rises above mild, with the big scary moment teased in the trailer actually coming across as much less frightening in context. The characters range from boring to repugnant, and Diaries can’t even conjure up the imagination to play with the familiar ‘final girl’ trope. One girl is blonde and ample bosomed, the other brunette and very nice. She’s also single, having been dumped by her boyfriend back home, and provides a tentative love interest for confident brother Paul. It’s all so pedestrian, which would have been alright had the concept not been so interesting on paper.
Even fans of simple horror will find Chernobyl Diaries hard to like, as there’s nothing new here to latch on to or enjoy. It doesn’t even feel contemporary, in the way that Paranormal Activity did so well, and the fake scares and banal dialogue just end up grating. The only smart thing the film does is to keep the threat out of sight, the audience only allowed to catch glimpses here and there, but it’s not enough to make up for the crushing frustration the rest of it leaves behind.
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