Chernobyl Diaries. 2012. Directed by Bradley Parker. Screenplay by Carey & Shane Van Dyke, & Oren Peli.
Starring Ingrid Bolsø Berdal, Dimitri Diatchenko, Olivia Taylor Dudley, Devin Kelley, Jesse McCartney, Nathan Phillips, Jonathan Sadowski, Milos Timotijevic, Alex Feldman, Kristof Konrad, & Pasha D. Lychnikoff.
Oren Peli & Brian Witten Pictures/Alcon Entertainment/FilmNation Entertainment.
Rated 14A. 86 minutes.
Recently, as I reviewed the fairly abysmal Urban Explorer, I’d been thinking about urban exploration as a whole. I’ve become enamoured with some of the creepier videos in the depths of YouTube. Guys like Dan Bell and many more are making quality little urban exploration videos that can often be chilling. Specifically, Bell himself has seen some interesting places, as well as encountered a few terrifying moments within the abandoned buildings he explores. So naturally, there have been a few films as of late to use the hobby for a premise. Unfortunately I’ve not come across many that are worth the watch, other than a couple such as The Tunnel and the criminally underrated As Above So Below.
However, Chernobyl Diaries is one that’s pretty fun. There are some flaws, which isn’t surprising. Although as a whole I’m inclined to believe this is also an underrated, unfairly criticised bit of horror that uses urban exploration as a way into something eerie and sinister. The actors generally help sell this story, but the unique location (filmed in Hungary and Serbia; though retains that abandoned and derelict setting required for Chernobyl) and the sense of uneasy dread that’s built up following the first half hour are what makes this enough to enjoy.
I’ll say this, though: doesn’t help when people assume your film is found footage solely based on shoddy camera work. Just throwing it out there.
Something I hate about reactions to horror movies in general is the “They should have/I would have” arguments. First of all, if you’re even trying to come near a horror film that’s totally fictional, then get lost. Not called for and will only result in non-enjoyment. Now, if you’re dealing with a horror that’s either based on true events or one that’s aiming for realism, you definitely have a point. Chernobyl Diaries is not meant to be a realistic horror. It indeed uses the true history of Chernobyl and the nuclear catastrophe the location experienced. In opposition, the plot itself is a horror/sci-fi hybrid. There’s nobody left living in Chernobyl, not people nor mutated humanoids. So what’s the long-winded mean? It means that, in a film such as this where realism is not an element required in order to give anything to the plot, Chernobyl Diaries isn’t one where you can likewise realistically claim “Oh this is how I’d react” because THAT MAKES NO FUCKING SENSE. Don’t tell me that after seeing all the creepiness build and build that you’d be in your total right working mind. This is what so many people forget, often those who aren’t hardcore horror fanatics – characters aren’t always meant to act rationally in horror films or television shows. That’s part of FEAR and DREAD and BEING SCARED. Anyone who’s ever feared for their life legitimately in any way, shape, or form knows that rationality is not always within arm’s reach. In this film particularly, I look at the character of Uri (Dimitri Diatchenko). He doesn’t act like an idiot here, despite what some might think. He does whatever he can think to do, and being a military men out of the Russian Special Forces I’m inclined to believe he’s potentially someone that knows exactly how to handle himself. Still, he ends up disappeared, most probably dead. Why is it then a bunch of young people, none even close to as trained as Uri, are expected to make smarter decisions than him? Makes no sense.
One last thing to add here – some people online (coughIMDBcough) are intent on believing there’s a stupidity to why the characters didn’t just run off when light came around. Well, if you were paying attention they had a Geiger counter with them which Uri brought, and it started going off at one point signalling an area with too much radiation. So if they headed off into whatever direction, not knowing where they were going without a guide, who’s to say they wouldn’t wander themselves into a heavily radiated patch and succumb to poisoning? Smart move. Then you’d be lambasting their idiotic decision to go out into the Ukrainian wilderness without knowing where to go, saying that’s why they ended up dead. No winning sometimes with horror fans, or rather casual horror fans that don’t think enough about their scary movies. Also, if you can’t understand that movie scenes often shift between times, usually signified through editing choices and maybe shots of the sky changing now and then in certain films, then maybe give up on commenting about movies. I saw someone say this movie suffers from a lot of night time scenes then suddenly it’s daytime. For instance, after Michael (Nathan Phillips) falls off the bridge into a small lake and gets bit, they walk into the woods – then, plain as DAY (pun intended), you can see a shot of the sky which suggests they’re walking a long time, until the sun starts going down, and then the next scene is the group of characters walking along a trail. Honestly, so many commentators online mentioned this as a problem. Are you kidding me? I’m never ever a snob about movies. But if you’re one of these people who can’t understand the basic mechanics of movies and how their plots are often propelled forward visually, then I’m not sure why you’re trying to spread your totally invalid opinions around about films.
After that rant, I have to mention the suspense. There are a couple jump scare moments peppered in throughout the screenplay, which director Bradley Parker uses to good effect. Yet they aren’t as jarring as some films often use their jumps. The ones that come off as cheap instead of genuinely scary actually anger me, so it’s nice to see Parker use these here without brash and annoying musical cues. Not to say I don’t enjoy something like Insidious, of which I’m a big fan (the franchise as a whole). However, in a genre like horror where too many directors tend to use jumps with music in order to shock their audience instead of working to make their movie organically frightening, this is a nice choice for the production. Furthermore, Parker more often than not – once the real horror starts chugging along in the last half hour – goes for the gradually unsettling jump, such as a figure lurking in the distance, barely seen in the darkness, or a dead body swinging upside down, or any number of the scares he employs. And even in the moments where we’re forced to hop our ass a little off the seat, Chernobyl Diaries works not to audibly jolt you, but opts rather to make the imagery eerie, to seep under your skin. Something I dig is that the mutated humanoids running around Pripyat are usually obscured in the dark, never fully in view and never for too long. Like a creature feature, any movie with monstrous creatures or infected or whatever is best served to keep their hideousness under the surface unless of course there’s an excellent design (like in Jaws or any zombie movie with work from Greg Nicotero/Howard Berger or Tom Savini, and so on). Here, Parker makes the horror of these radiated human beings, deformed into unrecognisable monsters, much more unnerving because of the fact we’re never allowed a clear, full-on look at their makeup. I’m sure they would’ve looked fascinating, or maybe not; either way it is an effective way to maintain the terror by not giving in and showing them too openly. This in turn ups the overall suspense and dreadful atmosphere throughout the latter half of the plot.
The only big complaint I have about the movie is its handheld work. I’m not opposed to handheld camera, just the opposite in fact. There are plenty of films where the technique is used to great effect, as well as those films where the style simply fits the story or themes appropriately. This is a movie that absolutely could’ve used handheld work to its advantage. Instead, people usually consider this a found footage horror when it is not at all; outside of one moment where they’re watching Chris (Jesse McCartney) on a recorded video left behind, this is not meant as found footage. Nevertheless, so many people list this as found footage when it’s not part of the sub-genre. And that’s due to the cinematography of Morten Søborg, which is in itself INCREDIBLY surprising. Søborg has shot some great cinema in the past two decades, from Nicolas Winding Refn’s Pusher trilogy and others, to Brothers and In a Better World. Plus, much more. So I’m genuinely shocked that his work here is lazy. Or it could be exactly what the director was hoping for, I’m not sure. Still, I can’t get into it. The way his handheld cinematography takes us through the film is at times hard to watch, simply due to it being too imitative of found footage. This is not a found footage movie, so why shoot it like one? Another thing that makes absolutely no sense to me. On the one hand, if Søborg went for something closer to his regular style this would easily make the whole thing better. On the other, it leaves Chernobyl Diaries lopsided when it could be even scarier.
Despite the flaws and even those that can’t seem to watch a movie correctly, Chernobyl Diaries is a decent little effort in the urban exploration corner of horror. The screenplay could use tightening, as well as the cinematography. But I always found myself on edge during this film. With the plot unfolding there’s nothing exactly innovative. It’s mainly the actors, the unsettling atmosphere with very little music leaving us immersed in the terror, and how Bradley Parker manages to keep the radiated horrors of Chernobyl under a cover of shadow to make everything more creepy. Yes, things can get better. Just don’t judge a film for things which make no sense, and don’t over think too much. This is a fun little ride if you let it take you.