Review: Chernobyl Diaries

Directed by Bradley Parker

Starring Jonathan Sadowksi, Jesse McCartney, Olivia Dudley, Devin Kelley, Dimitri Diatchenko

Release date: 22 June 2012

A group of American backpackers join an “extreme tour” of nuclear disaster site Chernobyl in Ukraine. They get more than they signed up for when they’re attacked by radioactive mutants…

Chernobyl Diaries opens with four young backpackers larking about with a videocamera, suggesting writer/producer Oren Peli is intent on transplanting the found footage style of his mega-smash Paranormal Activity franchise into a new setting.

With shaky-cam dramatics becoming something of a horror cliché, it is perhaps a relief that Peli and debut director Bradley Parker soon ditch the technique in favour of a more traditional style (though there is one further camcorder sequence later in the film). But if Chernobyl Diaries doesn’t replicate the aesthetics or themes of Paranormal Activity, it isn’t able to replicate the shock quotient either.

The movie starts well as borderline-likable backpackers Paul (Jake Gyllenhaal lookalike Sadowksi), his brother Chris (McCartney, looking like a squashed-together Leonardo DiCaprio and Justin Bieber), Chris’s girlfriend (Dudley, rather glamorous-looking for a backpacker) and her friend Amanda (The Chicago Code’s Kelley) enjoy the bars of Ukraine as part of their fun-filled Grand Tour of Europe.

They decide to join burly ex-military man Uri’s (Diatchenko) tour of Chernobyl, along with Norwegian Zoe (Berdal) and Australian Michael (Wolf Creek’s Nathan Phillips). But, of course, any horror film in which good-looking youngsters step out of their comfort zone – and visit a radioactive site, no less – isn’t going to end well. Sure enough, they’re soon being stalked by radiation-fried mutants.

Well, we say “soon”, but the mutants take ages to arrive. Even then they’re mostly kept in semi-darkness. While delaying the frights works well in a haunted house movie like Paranormal Activity, horror fans tend to be hungrier for relentless flesh-munching in a mutant/zombie/cannibal movie.

In fact, the early scenes prove more effective than the later ones. The tour feels genuine, with the tourists playfully larking about and Uri cutting corners while trying to keep his customers safe, and the acting and characterisation is above-average for this kind of film.

Chernobyl itself (convincingly recreated in Serbia and Hungry) is also a clever, atmospheric setting, filled with eerie abandoned buildings, abandoned car yards, dirty mutant fish-filled ponds and a half-built fairground. Admittedly, the use of this real-life disaster area for scares probably isn’t in the best taste – but since when have horror movies been in good taste? It’s not exactly SS Experiment Camp.

It is when the mutants eventually arrive that the film disappoints. As the heroes scurry through darkened corridors and in the belly of nuclear reactors, there are few surprises and it’s nowhere near as gory or insane as it should be. And the actors seem unable to convey fright as convincingly as friendship, with little to distinguish their personalities.

Chernobyl Diaries is still a good deal more proficient than the majority of low-budget slasher or monster movies, but you can’t help but think this could have been a minor classic had Peli and Parker let themselves go and created something crazier and bloodier.

Verdict: Chernobyl Diaries benefits from its original setting, though the plot borrows freely from The Descent, The Hills Have Eyes and Hostel. It’s not violent, tense or original enough to compete with those horror classics, but it has its moments. 6/10

Matt McAllister

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