I wasn’t as big a fan of writer/director Oren Peli’s ‘Paranormal Activity’ as some. Most of that comes from my being bored to tears by most “ghost story” type movies. That said, the premise behind Peli’s writing follow up, ‘Chernobyl Diaries’ sounded promising. The idea is that a group of young tourists go on an “extreme tourism” excursion into the town of Pripyat, the abandoned home to the workers of the Chernobyl nuclear plant. For the youngsters among you who don’t remember Chernobyl, there was a disastrous explosion there in 1986 and nuclear radiation leaked into the surrounding areas causing them to be abandoned.
That setup alone was enough to pique my interest. I love abandoned places so, if nothing else, I was hoping for some beautiful cinematography featuring a lot of dilapidated sets. That alone would’ve earned a “2 atom” score. But as you can see by glancing to the end of this review, ‘Chernobyl Diaries’ actually pulls off a good 3.5 atoms. So how did it do it?
First off, I won’t spoil the reveals (and there are a couple… most of them very well done). What I will say is that Peli and first time director Bradley Parker deliver what is mostly a fun and tense horror movie… mostly. The film starts off with a group of friends (Chris, Natalie, and Amanda) traveling through Europe. They stop in Kiev to meet up with Chris’ brother Paul who lives in the city. The plan is to travel from Kiev to Moscow for a day trip. Instead, Paul comes up with the idea to take the group on an adventure to Pripyat, courtesy of a Russian tour guide named Uri.
The initial journey into the abandoned town of Pripyat is wonderfully done. There are those abandoned buildings that I so love but what really keeps you involved is the feeling of tension and claustrophobia that the film conveys so well. Even as the characters banter and bicker through the trip, you keep watching the hollow black windows in the background and the dark corners of the buildings just waiting for something to appear… because you know it’s going to.
And it does. From the time that the horror finally starts, the movie moves at a breakneck pace up until the final few moments. Sure. The movie goes through some… okay… quite a few of the usual horror flick cliches. It’s a group of pretty 20-somethings heading to a creepy town. It’s to be expected. However, there are a few cool twists and turns that keep it ahead of the game. But what really does it for me is the setting.
‘Chernobyl Diaries’ was filmed in Serbia and Hungary but the sets definitely made me believe that they were actually in Pripyat. It’s amazing how much this setting affected me. I’ve seen a lot of horror movies, but the settings tend to be the same: haunted houses, cabins in the woods, creepy apartment buildings, suburban neighborhoods. The closest that I’ve seen to the Pripyat setting was the mostly abandoned towns in the ‘Hills Have Eyes’ and even that wasn’t as spooky as the idea that Pripyat is an actual place.
While it’s beautiful and wonderfully surreal, the setting alone can’t make a good horror movie. The story here is fun and the actors, led by Jonathan Sadowski (probably best known as the son on the short lived ‘$#*! My Dad Says’), are surprisingly good. The characters backstories are never really fleshed out beyond their basic roles but their banter comes across as believable as a group of friends and it actually make you root for them to make it through to the end. As a bonus, the tour guide, Uri (who reminded me a lot of Niko from ‘Grand Theft Auto 4’ for some reason… maybe it’s the tracksuit jacket), was wonderfully creepy and awkward, especially when he tries to have a little fun with the tourists.
So… It has a good setup and a decent group of actors, so where does ‘Chernobyl Diaries’ make its misstep into a 3.5 score? It’s in the final big reveal. Like I said, I won’t give it all away but I could’ve done with out the last few minutes or so of the movie. That reveal isn’t totally unexpected and it comes across as a little too cynical and cliche. I can think of at least two other ways I would’ve ended it if I were writing that would’ve made it at least satisfying. As it is, it’s just… there.
Ignoring the ending though, I actually enjoyed ‘Chernobyl Diaries’ a lot more than I expected. In fact, I liked it enough that I’ll probably watch it again later this week with friends. Sometimes a bad ending can ruin an otherwise good movie. Here that isn’t the case. The first 80 minutes of ‘Chernobyl Diaries’ is proof that a very cool (and fresh) setting, an interesting premise, and some halfway decent actors can make a good horror movie.
The DVD/Blu-ray/digital copy edition of ‘Chernobyl Diaries’ is released today and includes some passable bonus features. There’s an amusing informercial for “Uri’s Extreme Tours” which is pretty fun, a faux viral video on the “real” story behind the Chernobyl incident, the perquisite deleted scene, and an alternate ending (which is actually worse than the one used in the final film so don’t get excited).
So there you have it. ‘Chernobyl Diaries’… a really good horror movie brought down by a lackluster final reveal. If Peli and Parker had done something different with the end, I would’ve easily given this movie a 4 (possibly even 4.5) but as it stands, the final score is…
‘Chernobyl Diaries’ available on Blu-ray Combo pack, DVD and for download 10/16!