I remember the first time I saw the trailer for 2012’s “Chernobyl Diaries”. I thought it looked pretty good and I wondered if it might be the shot in the arm that the struggling horror genre desperately needed. Modern horror films have become lazy, uninspired, and derivative. Unfortunately those three words also perfectly describe “Chernobyl Diaries”. It turned out to be a classic case of the trailer being better than the movie. Every good scene is found in the trailer and some could reasonably argue that even those scenes are lacking. Yet another example of how the genre is stuck in a rut and just spinning its wheels.
I’ll give “Chernobyl Diaries” credit, the premise for the film is a pretty good one and it seemed ripe with potential. Three twentysomethings, Chris (Jesse McCartney), his girlfriend Natalie (Olivia Dudley), and her best friend Amanda (Devin Kelley) are on a European trip. After stops in London, Paris, Rome, and Prague, the three visit Kiev where Chris’s brother Paul (Jonathan Sadowski) lives. The next stop on the itinerary is Moscow but before they go Paul convinces the group to take a day trip to Chernobyl and the ghost town of Pripyat which is built around it. Their tour guide is a man named Yuri (Dimitri Diatchenko) who specializes in “extreme tourism”.
Just to freshen your memory, the Chernobyl catastrophe was a devastating Soviet nuclear incident that happened in 1986. A massive explosion in Chernobyl reactor four shot radioactive fallout into the atmosphere where it spread for miles across the Soviet Union and Europe. A Soviet coverup followed and the true death toll of those effected throughout the following years is unknown. The town of Pripyat, with its population of almost 50,000 people at the time, had been originally built to house the Chernobyl workers and their families. Due to its close proximity, the town was the hardest hit. It was instantly vacated and remains a ghost town today. This is where our four young tourists, Yuri, and another signed up couple pay a visit.
The brief history lesson I just gave is probably more entertaining than anything you’ll find in the film. Obviously when the group arrives there and begin to tour the abandoned city things go afoul. We know that’s going to happen. What I didn’t know was that the movie would take this interesting premise and ruin it almost immediately. It didn’t take long before I started noticing the same repetitive tricks, none of them effective. There’s honestly not one genuine scare in the entire picture and the movie never does anything to create a creepy atmosphere. Constantly walking in the dark with a flashlight or down tight hallways doesn’t constitute horror. But obviously that’s all the filmmakers had, creatively speaking.
Another big flaw in the film deals directly with the “threat” the group is facing. We are never really given a satisfying explanation of who or what they are and we never really see them. Now in much more capable and competent horror movies this might have added to the mystery and intensity of the film. Not here! I kept thinking that maybe the baddies could bail the movie out of the dull and lethargic hole it was in. Instead they’re just a faceless group that feel like retreads from other films. The movie tries to explain who or what they are in the final scenes but it’s so poorly done and I honestly didn’t even care at that point.
The movie also isn’t helped by its pretty shoddy acting and paper-thin characters. It’s funny watching the film try to give them some depth early on. We get some details about some past family drama between the brothers and the relationship between Chris and Natalie is about to take a turn. Yada, yada, yada. None of it adds an ounce to the characters. But apparently the filmmakers cared as little about the characters as I did. I don’t think any of them were actually killed on screen and one of them was completely forgotten.
One good thing about “Chernobyl Diaries” that it doesn’t prolong the agony. At a running time of under 90 minutes, I was quickly able to go about my business of forgetting the forgettable. Now the film was running on a small budget and that’s evident. But capable filmmakers have made really good films with even less money. This is an example of squandered potential but it’s also pretty crappy filmmaking featuring a pretty crappy cast built around a pretty crappy screenplay. In other words, I think it’s safe to say that “Chernobyl Diaries” won’t be credited for kickstarting the horror genre. In fact it shouldn’t be credited for much of anything.