Directed by: Bradley Parker
Premise: A group of tourists visit an abandoned town just outside of the famous nuclear disaster site in Ukraine. Once there the tourists begin to suspect that they are not alone.
What Works: Chernobyl Diaries is a very effective horror film. This is the kind of horror picture that is less about violence and more about about what might be lurking out of sight which often makes for more satisfying scares. Chernobyl Diaries is a very frightening chamber of horrors because the filmmakers effectively use sound and lighting. A lot of the film is understated in its style, using natural lighting and handheld cinematography. Much of the second half of Chernobyl Diaries takes place in the dark with minimal lighting and there are some very strong images in which creatures are seen in silhouette. The soundtrack makes frightening use of off screen sound effects and silence is allowed to hang in ways that build tension. The film does not have any singularly outstanding set pieces but the story unfolds very well and as a whole it establishes and maintains an atmosphere of dread. The abandoned town is a great setting both in daylight and in darkness. There are lots of decayed and imposing structures and it does a lot for the film, making this an appropriate setting for the horror that comes later. The film starts very credibly, introducing a cast of likable characters and the performers are very natural. This helps the film considerably as the audience will care about them when they are in jeopardy. Chernobyl Diaries shifts very quickly but gracefully in its tone, transitioning from a travelogue and into a horror story. From the sets and cinematography to the characters and makeup effects, the film has an organic and lived in quality that creates a reality on the screen that makes this film frightening. And in that, Chernobyl Diaries manages to be a lot of fun in the way that a haunted house ought to be.
What Doesn’t: Chernobyl Diaries is by no means ground breaking or innovative. The film was co-written and produced by Oren Peli, who also made the Paranormal Activity films and Chernobyl Diaries follows the style of those pictures very closely. This isn’t a found footage picture but it is shot with a handheld style and its color pallet has a grey, washed out look that recalls the black and white security footage of Paranormal Activity. Also like that film, Chernobyl Diaries takes a while to get going. The cast doesn’t actually get to its destination until about halfway through the film. Once they do the movie takes off but it takes a significant amount of screen time to get there. Chernobyl Diaries also borrows quite heavily from Alexandre Aja’s 2006 remake of The Hills Have Eyes. Although this is a better picture it shares some of the flaws of that film, namely that it is never quite clear who or what is after the main characters. Some mystery is fine and even preferable but if the filmmakers characterized the antagonists either through exposition or the use of establishing shots it might have helped the film.
Bottom Line: Chernobyl Diaries is one of the better horror films to be released in some time. The picture may not be groundbreaking or unique but it is a lot of fun and in many respects it is a better film than the pictures it imitates.
Episode: #391 (June 10, 2012)