In the so-so thriller The Chernobyl Diaries — which was co-produced and co-created by Paranormal Activity franchise magnate Oren Peli — a group of affably nondescript American twentysomethings go on an "extreme vacation" to Pripyat, Ukraine. Once there, everything goes predictably wackadoo.
Wouldn't it be great if — just for once — there was a horror movie where absolutely nothing flew off the rails and all of the characters went home alive and existentially satisfied? That would be a new breed of shocker. Audiences would be so horrified they wasted $10 a head! Anyway, spoilers imminent.
I almost titled this review "In Soviet horror flick The Chernobyl Diaries, the eyes have hills," but figured that would be too confusing and/or spoilery. Essentially, Peli and director Bradley Parker do for Pripyat what Wes Craven did for the Nevada desert 35 years ago, only with a lot more shaky cam and a whiff of sinister Eastern European exoticism à la Hostel.
If you look past the ethically murky implications of using this disaster for jump scares (something victims' support groups aren't thrilled by), The Chernobyl Diaries is a decent survival horror film that becomes a clichéd waste of time in the last 30 minutes.
In a nutshell, six backpackers and their ex-special forces tour operator — whose defining character traits can be assigned Snow White and The Seven Dwarves style — sneak into the ghost town of Prypiat after the Ukrainian military mysteriously cordons it off.
The narratively streamlined backpackers — Doubtful, Rakish, Busty, Blandy, Norwegian, and Norwegianette — soon find themselves without their beefy guide Uri (actor Dimitri Diatchenko, who does ominous well), after his tour van's engine is trashed by forces unknown. Who could have done this? The oversized dogs in the woods? The toothy mutated fish in the local lake? Or perhaps a curious, friendly, schnapps-swilling bear who evolved a knowledge of man's automotive arts? That would be a great twist.
The Chernobyl Diaries works best when it operates outside of the audience's expectations. When the film focuses more on the weirdo fauna (which could've been considerably weirder, as the film's not gunning for historical veracity) and parsimoniously doled out traces of life, it's not bad. The Bulgarian and Hungarian locales are also a reasonable stand-in for Pripyat's abandoned apartment blocks.
But when The Chernobyl Diaries becomes the umpteenth iteration of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre in the final act, it's tremendously dull. Save your money and watch an atmospheric and creepy movie a fraction of the length that was shot on location in Pripyat, Factory Fifteen's GAMMA.
RANDOM ASIDE: I accidentally left my iPod imperceptibly on in my pocket for the first 20 minutes of the movie. I only realized this when the characters drove into Pripyat, an entrance that magically and majestically synced up with the opening sax solo from Bob Seger's "Turn the Page." Modern horror movies need way more soulful saxophone.