The initial setup for Chernobyl Diaries is traditional, low-budget horror with a difference. Substitute the cabin in the creepy woods for the abandoned Russian city of Pripyat, the one-time home to the workers of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor site, and you get the idea.
Three young couples on vacation in Russia dump the idea of spending the day in Moscow and instead hire a local tourist guide to take them in his rickety van to Pripyat. The idea is to spend just a couple of hours in the ghost town, looking around, taking snapshots, then leaving. Radiation is still in evidence, but little danger to the youngsters as long as they get out of there within a certain time. But, as expected – or else there would be no film – they find they can’t leave. Someone or something lurking in the shadows of the abandoned buildings has damaged the spark plug leads in the van, and the three couples, plus the guide, are stranded and now at the mercy of whatever is observing them.
The film runs ninety minutes, the perfect length, and ends at just about the time when the story runs out its welcome and has nowhere to go. There are effective moments of atmospheric creepiness, plus a few cheap shots and jumps to keep us on edge, but the end result is one of ultimate disappointment.
Keeping in the grand tradition of low-budget horror there are no star names, yet during the early scenes, before the cast is picked off one by one, the six young actors surprisingly bring a sense of reality to each of their roles. There’s a natural quality to how they talk and behave that for a short time actually manages to elevate the production a notch above the norm, promising to deliver something more than just the regular exercise in teenage marketed terror.
The film doesn’t rush things, another plus. It spends a good amount of time establishing who the characters are, their relationships to each other, and why they are overseas in the first place. It’s not until almost thirty minutes into the film that we hear the first suspicious, off-screen sound that causes all the characters to stop in their tracks and look at each other with a what-the-heck-was-that stare. The payoff to that sound is unexpected and effective. So far, so good. But then things get routine, and to be frank, my worst fear regarding how the film was going to end materialized.
The film is shot with a hand-held, though the good news is that it’s not as nauseously shaky as you might fear, particularly as the first few minutes are shot on a home video camera reminiscent of every hand-held, shaky-cam movie released since The Blair Witch Project. The color is drained, which adds to a certain feeling of lifelessness – another nice touch considering where the story is taking place – but here’s the real problem: nothing surprises, least of all, sadly, the conclusion. It’s as if the writers were only concerned with getting everyone into an interesting situation but got lazy when coming up with a way of getting everyone out of it, so they don’t bother.
Chernobyl Diaries begins with a somewhat unique and attention-grabbing perspective on an old theme, but ends up being just another teenage horror product with yet one more no hope ending for everyone involved, including the audience.
MPAA Rating: R Length: 90 minutes Overall Rating: 5 (out of 10)