May 27, 2012

Movie Review: Chernobyl Diaries

Co-writer and producer Oren Peli is making a career out of scaring you while never really showing you anything, having brought us the Paranormal Activity franchise and now Chernobyl Diaries. Much like his prior creation, this one, directed by Brad Parker, seems to do everything it can to keep from really showing you anything related to the real threat. In a way it is a bit of a cheat, a way t avoid showing the blood and guts that many of us horror fans clamor for. Still, there is something to be said about the creatures that lurk in the dark waiting to grab us at unsuspecting moments, not knowing what is lurking. There is that and the fact that it isn't ghosts this time out.

Chernobyl Diaries is a movie that initially presents itself as found footage, but turns out to be a lot more traditional than that. It just teases the audience at the start as we follow a group of four friends as they explore cities in Russia. After the initial meet and greet the movie transitions away from the video recorders and into a more standard narrative, although the handheld camera style remains throughout, as if there is an unseen friend hanging onto the camera to document everything, but never acknowledged by anyone. It isn't so bad, at least it isn't Hunger Games' pointless shaking, it still feels right here.

Anyway, our group is made up of brothers Paul (Jonathan Sadowski), who recently moved to Russia, and Chris (weak link Jesse McCartney), along with Chris's girlfriend and another recently single friend (Olivia Dudley and Devin Kelley) decide to forego the Moscow tourist trap for a little something outside the usual. Paul suggests they take a tour to Pripyat, the town just next to the Chernobyl reactors where the workers and their families lived. Everyone was forced to leave so fast that everything was left behind and is still there. Now, 25-years after the disaster it is possible to tour the area, this is not a movie creation and I have a friend who wants to do it. Here is one such place you can book tours - CLICK.

After some mild protesting by Chris, the group meet their guide, Uri (Dimitri Diatchenko), and a honeymooning couple also taking the tour. Off they go into the still radioactive town for a bit of extreme tourism. They look around, have a few scares and head back to the van. This is where things get dicey. The van won't start and there is evidence they may not be alone.

At this point, Chernobyl Diaries turns into a run through the dark, creep around corners, get grabbed and killed by something or things until only one or two are left. Veterans of the horror genre are sure to be familiar with this. This leaves the big question to be whether or not it is worth the trip. I say yes.

The movie, despite being co-written by a pair of Asylum vets, does a pretty good job of giving us characters that are at least a little bit interesting. Sure, they are forced to spout some goofy dialogue, but they generally pull it off. It helps pay off when things start going down. On top of that, the Uri character is a trip, he seems sincere but it is also clear that he is not telling them everything. The extent of his knowledge is anyone's guess, but there is more to him than meets the eye.

There are a lot of details left out and questions asked and left unanswered, but I am all right with that. It leaves things open to interpretation and speculation. Much like the found footage style movie, Chernobyl Diaries is not told by an omniscient narrator, we are only allowed to know what is shown. What is lurking in the shadows? What really happened here? Does what Uri know have anything to do with what actually happens or is that related to something else? I would not be against a sequel exploring some of the details surrounding what happened here.

Something else that really helps make the movie work is the setting. I am pretty sure they did not shoot on location, but wherever it was that they shot, it looks authentic. Considering the reality of the tragedy a quarter century ago, the setting is seriously creepy. Despite the shaky camera, this setting is dripping with atmosphere. I can tell you, I would not want to be caught there after dark, mutants and freaky dogs or not.

I have to say, even though this is not nearly the greatest of movies, it does offer some chills and excitement. It feels a bit like The Ruins crossed with The Hills Have Eyes. It is not as good as either of those films, but it works. It holds together, feels genuine and in the end it left you questioning what you saw and what it means. It is certainly worth checking out.


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