Chernobyl Diaries trades scares for despair

2012 is a busy year for horror writer/director Oren Peli.  Having already debuted his horror drama series “The River” on the ABC network earlier this year, his first of three film projects is about to hit UK cinemas.  The brain behind the Paranormal Activity series has made some new creative strides prior to returning for a fourth instalment of the popular found footage franchise.  Peli has penned Chernobyl Diaries and handed it over to director Brad Parker for his first venture behind the camera.  While thankfully leaving found footage gimmick behind, Peli runs with what sounds like an intriguing idea on paper, only to see it fall victim to its own premise.

Chernobyl Diaries presents six traveling twenty-somethings about to take an “extreme” day tour of Prypiat, an abandoned town within the Chernobyl exclusion zone.  The initial “two-hour” exploration makes for some fascinating viewing as the decaying, overgrown buildings provide a serenely haunting environment.  A first hint of trouble quickly leads to a much bigger problem that leaves the tour group stranded in the radioactive town.  It is at this point where matters fall apart for the characters and for Chernobyl Diaries as a horror film.  Despite making a fair stab at acquainting the audience with his characters, Peli digs a hole so deep for them that any dramatic tension is nullified by the sheer insurmountability of the scenario they find themselves in.  As a result, instead of being thrilling or nerve-racking Chernobyl Diaries becomes a rather depressing affair, as suspense is replaced by inevitability.

Sure, horror flicks and screen deaths go hand-in-hand, but where Chernobyl Diaries goes wrong is the lack of any light at the end of the tunnel.  The group struggle for survival, but to what end?  It is stated that the levels of radiation are manageable for a couple of hours, but once that period has expired, it stands to reason that the prolonged exposure will do some serious damage no matter what the outcome is realised.  Nor does the remote location do much to lend an air of optimism.  Regardless of how Chernobyl Diaries actually ends- even if they’re all miraculously swooped to safety come the final scene, there is nothing along the way that implies to that possibility.  It feels entirely hopeless.  The strained relationship between brothers Paul (Jonathan Sadowski) and Chris (Jesse McCartney)?  The impending marriage proposal from Chris to Natalie (Olivia Dudley)?  None of it matters once it becomes obvious how badly the deck is stacked against them.  This may work fine for the Final Destination series, where the fun is had in all the crazy ways the lambs are sacrificed (yet, even in those films hope remains for at least one character), but Chernobyl Diaries doesn’t manage to deliver a single memorable death scene either.  The majority of the “horrors” are left unseen or glanced quickly via shaky-cam.  This is especially disappointing given that Parker’s experience comes primarily from visual effects departments.

There are other minor issues within the film that would be harmless with a stronger script.  “Why would he/she do that?” moments are entirely expected of such movies and Chernobyl Diaries doesn’t disappoint on that count.  From a casting perspective performances are inoffensive, though leading man Sadowski can’t cut it when the going gets tough and comes across as thoroughly unconvincing once the final act is in full swing.  The score is minimal but standard for the genre, including some pulse pounding beats that literally sound as such.  As for the camera work, the handheld approach gets overly bumpy and does little to enhance the experience.

As a sum of these parts, Chernobyl Diaries fails to engage at any level.  Buckling under the weight of what feels like a foregone conclusion, Peli’s script and Baker’s execution fail to provide any true scares or surprises.  It is in every horror film’s best interest to place the odds of their characters’ survival within the positive realm of probability.  To do otherwise is to present a death march; and as Chernobyl Diaries proves, death marches are not entertaining, they’re deflating.  5/10

Chernobyl Diaries is in UK cinemas 22 June

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