Between Paranormal Activity and Chernobyl Diaries, co-writer and producer Oren Peli is making quite a career out of creating scares while never really showing much of anything. Much like his prior creation, this one, directed by first timer Brad Parker, seems to do everything it can to keep from really showing you anything related to the actual threat. In a way it is a bit of a cheat, a way to avoid showing any gore. Still, there is something to be said about the fear of the unseen creatures lurking in the dark waiting to grab us at unsuspecting moments. There is that and the fact that it isn’t ghosts this time out.
Chernobyl Diaries starts off like a found footage movie, but turns out to be a bit more traditional than that. The style used in the early going is just a tease as we follow a group of four friends as they travel through some European cities on their way to Russia. After the character introductions, the movie transitions away from the video recorders and into a more standard narrative, although the handheld camera style remains throughout, as if there is an unseen friend running around to document everything, but never acknowledged by anyone.
Our intrepid group is made up of Paul (Jonathan Sadowski), who recently moved to Russia, his brother, Chris (weak link Jesse McCartney), along with Chris’s girlfriend and her recently single friend (Olivia Dudley and Devin Kelley). Initially planning on going to Moscow, they forego the tourist trap for a something a little more exotic. Paul suggests they take a tour to Pripyat, the town next to the Chernobyl reactors where the workers and their families lived. Everyone was forced to leave so fast that everything was left behind and is still there. Now, 25 years after the disaster, it is possible to tour the area, this is not a movie creation; you really can book tours of the radioactive location.
After some mild protesting by Chris, the group meets up with their guide, Uri (Dimitri Diatchenko), and a honeymooning couple also taking the tour. Off they go to the safe but still radioactive town for a bit of extreme tourism. They look around, have a few scares, take a few pictures, and head back to the van. This is where things get a little dicey. The van won’t start, and there is evidence they may not be alone.
At this point, Chernobyl Diaries turns into survival horror. Our dwindling groups run through the dark, creep around corners, get grabbed and killed by something or things until only a couple are left. Veterans of the horror genre are sure to be familiar with this sort of set up.
The movie, despite being co-written by a pair of Asylum (the company known for making knock offs of Hollywood productions, like Paranormal Entity and Transmorphers) vets, does a pretty good job of giving us modestly interesting characters. Sure, they are forced to spout some goofy dialogue, but they generally pull it off. On top of that, the Uri character is a trip, he seems sincere but it is also clear that he is not telling them everything. The extent of his knowledge is anyone’s guess, but there is more to him than meets the eye.
There are a lot of details left out, and questions asked but left unanswered, leaving things open to interpretation and speculation. Much like the found-footage style movie, Chernobyl Diaries is not told by an omniscient narrator, we are only allowed to know what is shown. What is lurking in the shadows? What really happened here? Does what Uri know have anything to do with what actually happens or is that related to something else? This is clearly not a movie designed to satisfy your need for explanation.
Something else that really helps make the movie work is the setting. I am pretty sure they did not shoot on location, but wherever it was that they shot, it looks authentic. Considering the reality of the tragedy a quarter century ago, the setting is seriously creepy. Despite the shaky camera, this setting is dripping with atmosphere. I can tell you, I would not want to be caught there after dark, mutants and freaky dogs or not.
Audio/Video. The movie is presented in an aspect ratio of 1.85:1. It is a decent looking transfer. It represents a couple of different looks, early on there is the camcorder footage before transitioning to a more traditional shaky cam. Much of he film is dark and the black levels are nice and deep, obscuring all but what they want you to see. Colors are of the desaturated variety and detail is solid.
Audio is a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track. It is an effective mix making spare use of the surrounds, letting them spring to action with the arrival of mutants skittering in the background or other atmospheric effects. Dialogue is always nice and clear. It is a nice and effective track.
Extras. The extras are rather disappointing. I would have liked a commentary or at least a featurette about he production and setting.
- Uri’s Extreme Tours Infomercial. This is a brief commercial for our intrepid tour guide.
- Chernobyl Conspiracy Viral Video. Interesting little piece that will tickle the brains of conspiracy enthusiasts.
- Deleted Scene: Welcome to Kiev. Glad it was cut, nothing to see here.
- Alternate Ending. They were right to stick with the ending they used.
Bottomline. I have to say, even though this is not nearly the greatest of movies, it does offer some chills and excitement. It feels a bit like The Ruins crossed with The Hills Have Eyes. It is not as good as either of those films, but it works. It holds together, feels genuine and in the end it left you questioning what you saw and what it means. It is certainly worth checking out.