‘Chernobyl Diaries’ Review
Great atmosphere and setting with an excellent build-up that leads to a so-so finale.
In a horror movie, setting is one of the most important things that can make or break the film. ‘Chernobyl Diaries’ excels in that regard – in the sense that it’s set on a setting that no other horror movie has ever explored before. As a result, it’s a satisfying and creepy film that has a build-up that impresses and is engaging to see how things turn out. Too bad the payoff isn’t as strong.
The plot follows six American tourists looking out for a thrill abroad and discover the idea of ‘extreme’ tourism thanks to an overexcited foreign tour guide, who suggests them a tour of the city of Pripyat – which was the home to the workers of Chernobyl in the 70’s before the nuclear disaster led to them abandoning the entire city overnight. But though the tour for them is thrilling and fun when they first arrive there, things take a turn for the worse as they realise that they’re stranded there with no sign of rescue. And also, they’re not alone.
Producer Oren Peli is known for making ‘Paranormal Activity’ and producing ‘Insidious’, and this film feels like it’s come from the same brainchild because it feels more raw and organic than most horror films of this kind. Though you might mistake it as a found-footage film from the trailer, it’s actually a traditionally shot film with the camera not as a character. But it’s as close to a found-footage film that a movie can get while still being traditionally shot in terms of visual aesthetic and camera angles. It’s very raw and barebones and lacks those big aerial or panning shots but keeps the movements gritty throughout. In the horror genre, being raw and realistic actually helps crank up the tension in the film and that’s exactly the case here. It almost feels like a documentary without actually being one.
But it’s the unique setting that takes the cake here – the abandoned city of Pripyat rpat after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 70’s led to thousands of people abandoning it overnight. The movie wasn’t actually shot on location, but they re-create the city with surprisingly good detail for a low budget horror movie and gives the viewer the chills from the moment that the group of characters arrive at the scene. Something about the eeriness and unusually quiet nature of the place creates a haunting and atmospheric setting and the director is smart enough to mine the most of it during the first half of the film. There’s a very effective build up here that will keep you engaged as these tourists roam around the city taking pictures. Subtle clues left here and there clearly let the audience know there’s something clearly amiss here and these guys need to get out as fast as they can. You would think that the movie would quickly jump into horror movie mode after that exploration bit, but there’s a lot more buildup that the film has to offer after they realise that they’re stranded with no help to be found. Though the pacing ratches up a notch here, the film still holds back a lot of its secrets and we still don’t know who they’re really up against and what’s really going on here.
And I think that’s what works best in favor of the film – an element of mystery and anticipation that heightens the tension and we don’t know what’s actually going on. They say fear of the unknown is the most effective form of fear and this holds true with the film during the first two thirds of it. The progression of events are intense as they go along and things start to become like a traditional horror movie at this point. But it’s probably because the film itself was so effective till this point is why the third act pales in comparison. Once we are actually shown the enemy our heroes are against, it’s not as clever as we were led to believe that it was. In fact, it’s a theme done in a very popular horror movie franchise before and they did it better. It’s at this point that you realise that the creators just used the setting of Chernobyl to make a standard film that could have been made in any setting all the more interesting and high-concept. The final scenes are a mixed bag as well, even though there are some highlight creepy moments in there that have some great make-up effects. But the very final scene tries to go the route of ‘Rec’ and ‘The Last Exorcism’ where they introduce a brand new plot twist to the proceedings, but fails to give us any sort of lasting resolution and answers that feel satisfying which is something that ‘Rec’ did brilliantly.
Acting is pretty standard from everyone involved, but props to them for making it feel natural and organic instead of scripted since there was apparently a lot of improvisation and the documentary style lends to that. There’s that one blonde female as the exception who was only cast because of her ‘assets’ but thankfully doesn’t have that much to do compared to the other leads. It’s a low budget movie so there’s not much to expect glamor wise, but the CGI in the very few scenes that it actually appears is actually kind of mediocre and feels out of place.
But overall, ‘Chernobyl Diaries’ is another effective horror film from Oren Peli’s producing hand. It’s very atmospheric and unique in its setting, with a build-up that’s engaging and nail biting. If only it would have lead to a stronger conclusion, this would’ve been the highlight horror movie of the year. But as it stands, it’s still something horror fans will get a kick out of.