Chernobyl Diaries (2012)
90 min., rated R.
If you want originality in a horror film, hop in a time machine and travel back to 1999 when "The Blair Witch Project" was all the rage and the seed of many stripped-down "found-footage" novelties. Instead, "Chernobyl Diaries" takes the horror genre's rote cabin-in-the-woods setup, throws out the cabin, and adds the abandoned town of a tragic radiation accident. As producer Oren Peli has proven with his own "Paranormal Activity," the unknown is always frightening, as long as it's executed right, and it's all about location, location, location. Here, visual effects supervisor Brad Parker makes his confident directorial debut, working from a script written by Peli, Shane van Dyke and Carey van Dyke. Even if it's not groundbreaking as pick-'em-off-one-by-one pics go, "Chernobyl Diaries" is effectively creepy, smartly employing the power of suggestion for its freak-out jolts rather than explaining everything with a gored-up bow.
Touring through Europe, Chris (Jesse McCartney), his girlfriend Natalie (Olivia Taylor Dudley), and their friend Amanda (Devin Kelley) end up in Kiev, Ukraine to visit Chris' smart-assy older brother Paul (Jonathan Sadowski). The plan is to go to Moscow, so Chris can propose to Natalie, but Paul has a "better idea." For some "extreme tourism," he finds tour guide Uri (Dimitri Diatchenko) to take them to the Ukrainian town of Prypiat that was radioactively contaminated and thus abandoned for twenty-five years after the neighboring Chernobyl Plant's nuclear reactor exploded. Tagging along with the four is a backpacking couple of hippies, the Australian Michael (Nathan Phillips) and the Norwegian Zoe (Ingrid Bolsø Berdal). Uri promises the radiation levels are low enough that they'll be safe for their two-hour tour without being exposed to the radioactive air, but as they pull in, the guards won't let them through. No problem, Yuri knows another way. "Nature has reclaimed its natural home," Uri tells them, but they aren't alone when the group gets ready to leave and find the van's wires have been chewed. The ruins of Pripyat turn out to be like a roach motel: the stranded young tourists won't be checking out.
The way the film starts is much more "Hostel" than "Paranormal Activity," but whereas that xenophobia-concerned gorefest got its jollies off on graphically spewing body parts, "Chernobyl Diaries" is much more restrained in what it shows. The introduction of the characters is filmed in shaky-cam P.O.V. and cued to Supergrass' "Alright," a poppy tune that won't be playing by the film's end. To the film's betterment, the found-footage aesthetics are soon dropped, with the exception of characters finding two missing characters' Smart phone video, but the hand-held camerawork still give us a "you-are-there" reality. After a nicely deliberate first act, and once one of the friends gets injured by an unknown beastie, some of them go looking for Uri and anything to help them get out of dodge. This is where director Brad Parker goes to town, relying on the complete silence of the eerie town and then finding ways to throw audiences into a funhouse of jolts, taut suspense, and on-edge immediacy. A sneaky bear attack takes us off guard. A set-piece in a kitchen is breathlessly tense, recalling the velociraptor attack in "Jurassic Park." A short girl-like figure appears behind the group in the darkness. And later, a pack of heavy-breathing figures chase them throughout the dark corridors of the power plant.
After the transcendent "Cabin in the Woods," we can't be so greedy in wanting characters that are too smart. Obviously if it weren't for the dumb kids in "Chernobyl Diaries," we'd have no movie. When Uri ignores the guards' stern warnings, the characters at least regret taking the tour. And once stranded, it's understandable that these characters have to take risks and make plausibly less-than-wise decisions to stay alive, calling for them to run through dank, spooky passageways. At least they don't insult our intelligence and go have sex or get high, as horror-movie dummies tend to do. It also helps that Chris, Natalie, Amanda, and Paul are a likable bunch from the start, all naturally acted (or improvised?) by a charismatic cast, especially chipmunk-cheeked pop-music star McCartney and Sadowski. Credit should also go to the slightly ominous Diatchenko, who's perfect as the Worst Tour Guide alive.
Somewhat reminding of the formerly radioactive desert locale from the 2006 remake of "The Hills Have Eyes," the spooky post-apocalyptic landscape of a ghost town is ripe for frights. The fact that director Parker shot most of it on-site in Prypiat even further adds to the film's goal of getting audiences to squirm. Though Peli and his co-writers give us a thankfully uncompromising nightmare, they can't really figure out a resolution, settling for an obvious anticlimax. And the introduction of a ferris wheel no longer in operation feels like a wasted opportunity. Bones to pick aside, "Chernobyl Diaries" may be a puppet-mastered exercise, but it works like a charm powered by fear. Cancel 'backpacking through Ukraine' off the list.