Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Cult Movie Review: Chernobyl Diaries (2012)

Chernobyl Diaries is the new horror film from Oren Peli, the mastermind behind the profitable Paranormal Activity franchise.  Peli writes and produces this 2012 film, but leaves the directing chores to first-timer Bradley Parker.

And as you may have read, Chernobyl Diaries has drawn largely negative reviews

At USA Today, for instance, Claudia Puig wrote of a “boredom meltdown” watching the film, while Marc Savlov at The Austin Chronicle termed it a “boilerplate mutant-a-thon” and awarded the film one star out of four.  

The New York Time’s Andy Webster felt that the film leaves one “feeling empty.”

Admittedly, I wasn’t expecting much, based on these negative reviews, but overall I was pleasantly surprised by Chernobyl Diaries.  It’s a moderately suspenseful horror film, and there are moments of pure, throat-tightening horror at the denouement.  The film suffers from the same (easily avoidable…) problem that plagued the original Paranormal Activity, namely a last-minute monster close-up that spoils any sense of ambiguity or uncertainty.  

But beyond that deficit, the film is creepy, streamlined, and effective thanks to the unnerving location work (the film was shot in Hungary and Serbia), and to some really spiky moments at the finale, wherein the surviving characters collide with an invisible but mortal and dreadful threat.

There’s no tactful way to put this, but you probably already know if you enjoy films of this sort.  I do, of course, and thus I found Chernobyl Diaries a worthy (if not brilliant…) heir to horrors such as The Hills Have Eyes (1977).  It’s essentially a straightforward, irony-free re-assertion of some very basic and familiar horror movie tropes.  And yet the unnerving addition of the Chernobyl location -- with its particular sub-set of survival challenges -- makes the film compelling enough for at least one curiosity viewing.

Chernobyl Diaries is the story of Paul (Jonathan Sadowski), his brother Chris (Jesse McCartney), and two young women, Amanda (Devin Kelley) and Natalie (Olivia Taylor Dudley).  

Chris and the girls are on a tour of Europe when they stop to visit Paul in Kiev.  He suggests an “extreme” tourist attraction: a   visit to abandoned Chernobyl, just 100 kilometers away.  Their cheery tour guide, Uri (Dimitri Diatchenko) is former Soviet military, and exudes confidence about the trip.  Of course it will be safe.

Unfortunately, the Americans find that Chernobyl is still inhabited by deformed and apparently-starving mutants.  In short order, the mutants disable Uri’s van and kill him, leaving the fish-out-of-water Americans to fend for themselves in a city they hardly know. 

Meanwhile, the longer they stay, the longer they are exposed to dangerous, possibly lethal levels of radiation…

The first thing you must get over in order to enjoy Chernobyl Diaries (2012) is the sheer tastelessness of the title and the central setting. 

As you likely recall, Chernobyl is the city in the Ukraine where a devastating nuclear accident occurred in April of 1986.  An explosion at a Soviet power plant released large quantities or radiation into the atmosphere, and the city was evacuated  It’s the worst nuclear accident in history --  a Level 7 event -- and the long-term effects of the radioactivity on the location still aren’t fully and completely understood.  Chernobyl is thus a one-word short-hand for human tragedy and human short-sightedness.

And yet, by point of comparison, how tasteful a title is The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), really? 

The horror film boasts a long tradition of colorful, audacious titles and in some sense Chernobyl Diaries conforms to that tradition.  That established, I don’t think we as Americans would appreciate much a Russian-made film called The September 11th Diaries, set at Ground Zero.  But as I’ve established before, good horror is about breaking boundaries, shattering taboos, and leaving decorum in the dust.  Setting a horror movie at Chernobyl certainly fits that bill.

The second thing you must get over in order to enjoy Chernobyl Diaries is the fact that all the characters are paper-thin.  In fact, the four leads are almost exactly the same four lead characters featured in another Russian-set genre film, The Darkest Hour (2011). 

Seriously, I think there are love interests named Natalie in both movies, even.

And yet, watching Chernobyl Diaries, I was reminded of a canny insight that Tim Philo, director of photography of the original The Evil Dead (1983) shared with me during an interview in 2004.  He said:

“The best characters in horror films are nulls; people that you don’t know, so it is easier to relate to them because you don’t know too many specific things.  You don’t know that someone is breaking up with a boyfriend, or that they are an orphan.  You don’t need to [know].  You have somebody who is not so defined and it is easier to relate them.  I look back to something like Night of the Living DeadThose people in the basement?  You don’t get their stories.  You’re just, “Hey, this is who you’re left with.’  These are the survivors.”

The point here is that when the audience gets too deeply into the characters appearing in a horror movie, they cease to function as effective surrogates for the audience (and accordingly, for audience fears), and instead become fully-fledged, fully-dimensional people.  

From a certain perspective, as diagrammed in the quote above, the less we know about a character, the easier it is to put ourselves in his or her place.  Chernobyl Diaries is determinedly the kind of horror movie -- think the Friday the 13th films -- where that particular equation really works.  The characters are broadly-defined and they could be anybody’s brother or sister.  Accordingly, we begin to imagine ourselves in their shoes.  As (relatively) empty vessels, the identification process is easier.

Beyond that set-up, the film’s characters -- like those in The Evil Dead or The Hills Have Eyes -- are made to suffer for a blatant moral transgression. 

In The Evil Dead, the transgression is playing aloud the tapes of the demon resurrection words.  In Chernobyl Diaries, the transgression is, simply, the morbid desire to visit the site of a tragedy, and to do so with an absolute minimum of respect and decorum.  People in Chernobyl had to leave their homes and livelihoods forever, and some suffered radiation exposure.  But for the callow extreme tourists it’s all a big joke.  

They don’t understand suffering until they suffer themselves. 

Like The Hills Have Eyes, Chernobyl Diaries concerns outsiders (the “haves”) combating a native population (the “have nots”), and solely on terms favorable to the home team.  The tourists possess a vehicle, warm coats, a weapon, phones, a flash-light, walkie-talkies and other modern conveniences, but they are overcome, finally, by the desperation of the mutants dwelling in the city.  The tourists are the invaders here, though they don’t realize it, and are against superior numbers.  

Those viewers who interpreted Hostel (2005) as xenophobic will likely gaze at Chernobyl Diaries through the same lens, but the primary issue here seems to be empathy, or lack thereof.  The extreme tourists don’t seem to register the idea of the human tragedy that occurred at Chernobyl.  They just want an afternoon’s diversion or entertainment.  This is, in broad terms, the issue of our day in horror films.  If you look back over the last decade and remember films such as The Ring (2002), Hostel (2005), The Grudge (2004) and others, there’s always this sense that those who gleefully watch the suffering of others (sometimes through the mass media) get their comeuppance.

By witnessing the suffering of others, they get drawn into that suffering.  Chernobyl Diaries, while not particularly deep, certainly conforms to this idea.

This Bradley Parker/Oren Peli film is well-shot and edited cannily enough to pass muster, and some scenes really work very well.  There’s an early moment in an apparently vacant apartment building, when Uri hears a sound in the next room.  He walks off to find out what it was, disappearing from the frame entirely.  Parker holds the shot -- an empty frame -- for a long moment, and allows our fears to fill in the emptiness.  Is that the last time we are going to see Uri?  What is going to appear in the frame, instead of Uri?  We start asking ourselves all these questions, and uneasiness and suspense bloom.

Chernobyl Diaries’ final act is the most memorable, and the most horrific.  The surviving tourists are chased by mutants from one dimly-lit city interior to another.  

The tourists keep heading down, down, and down, further and further, into basements and other dank, shadowy chambers.  The descent is dizzying and apparently endless, as they traverse what seems like miles in tight corridors with low-ceilings.  The tight framing by Parker really succeeds in generating a sense of claustrophobia.  There’s the powerful aura of a descent into Hell Itself, and the final, visual punch-line represents the film’s one brilliant achievement.  The survivors come up for air in the worst place imaginable -- the worst place on Earth, perhaps -- and we get a spectacular shot that allows recognition to fall over us like a shroud.

During the climax, the characters suddenly reach a threshold of no return in very startling, visually horrific terms.  My wife had to turn away from the screen at this particular juncture, and I understand why. If you grew up during the Cold War, fearing nuclear war and radiation poisoning, the images here remain potent, and may awaken old nightmares and dreads.   We get a comment from one protagonist that his eyes feel “funny,” and then, simultaneously, there’s something burning in the air, and well, I think you get the point, or at least can guess it.

So, yeah, Chernobyl Diaries is tasteless, and populated by superficial characters on one hand. 

On the other hand, it comments, seemingly, on that very tastelessness and callousness, and showcases a transgression on the part of those not terribly-interesting characters.

But the bottom line is that the movie is scary, and the last act is more, proving terrifying and resonant.

Sometimes success or failure in terms of a horror movie comes down to a particular moment or scene that comes at exactly the right juncture.  I can argue that this is the case indeed for Chernobyl Diaries.  It feels like that ‘boiler-plate mutant-a-thon’ going in and for much of the picture, and but then, in that valedictory moment, the film goes above and beyond decorum and convention, and shows the audience something truly unexpected, and truly horrifying. 

Those last images may linger in your mind afterward, creating a searing half-life of their own.


  1. Richard Pryor once said that a joke can be completely tasteless and against accepted decorum, but...if it is funny, and it makes people laugh, then it is a good joke. I think that this is a rule that similarly holds true for horror films. I always wondered why the topic has never previously been the subject of a horror film to be honest, sounds craven, but this real life tragedy is a very natural narrative for a horror film. Without being overtly political, I do think that the analogy between Chernobyl & 9/11 is somewhat overstated. One is a technological breakdown, another is an intentional act of mass murder. Of course, I understand the point, both are national tragedies to their respective countries and Chernobyl is seen by some as insensitive.
    But pleasingly, your review acknowledged the criticism, but this did not kill the movie for you. It seems that the film met it's intended goal, to scare, not demean. The production values were excellent, location shooting was spot-on, totally bought the fish-out-of-water story.

  2. Sadly, there is a low budget zombie film "Towers of Terror" in production set at Ground Zero on 9/11. Http://bit.ly/RII8YK