Too many horror films depend too much on people doing stunningly bone-headed things to work. Where would the genre be if someone just said “Let’s not spend the night in the murder house!” or “Don’t tease that old gypsy woman!” or “Maybe we could play Scrabble instead of going to the cemetery during the eclipse and reenacting the Satanic ceremony practiced by the coven of witches buried there?” If you say those things, you have no movie, and so we fans must often tolerate incredibly stupid things from our protagonists just to crank the body count up to an acceptable level.
When it comes to Really Really Really Incredibly Bad Horror Film Decisions, however, “visiting Chernobyl” is climbing the charts with a bullet. Granted, the possibilities of that setting are epic. The location stands as one of our most primal transgressions as a species: “THE MONKEYS FUCKED UP” writ in mile-high Day-Glo letters for all the universe to see. A director tapping into that folly could deliver a masterpiece, and Paranormal Activity guru Oren Peli’s prominent status in the credits of Chernobyl Diaries gives one cause for hope. Sadly, neither Peli (who produced and co-wrote the film) nor Bradley Parker (who actually directed it) developed the concept to even a fraction of its potential.
Instead, the site of the infamous nuclear disaster serves as a slightly more interesting haunted house: existing solely to let its gaggle of Bright Young Things run around in buggy-eyed terror for ninety minutes. Not that they should have expected anything else. When one of them suggests taking an “extreme tourism” trip to the world’s biggest radioactive hot zone, the fact that the rest of the group doesn’t take turns slapping the taste out of his mouth officially marks them as functionally brain damaged.
Things get worse when their van breaks down on the site and their Ukrainian tour guide runs off in the dark to get eaten by whatever the hell is out there. Chernobyl Diaries bets a lot on our curiosity factor when it comes to the creatures menacing them. It lines up a number of culprits – wild dogs, rampaging bears, radioactive cannibals – none of whom come across as the least bit interesting. Parker diligently unveils the sudden-attack shock tactics, but with his protagonists so woefully lacking in personality, the would-be scares grate like fingers on the blackboard.
With the monster question left unresolved and the boo-gotcha stuff wearing out its welcome, the film doubles down on its heroes’ idiocy. First it tells us that they’re relatively safe in the daylight (except for the potentially lethal radiation of course) and that a soldier’s checkpoint lies a few hours’ walk away. And yet – having survived the first night and with one of their own suffering from a nasty leg injury – they insist on poking around a few more old buildings rather than drawing straws and hiking out for help. When they do finally get the right, a pack of feral canines sends them scurrying from the main road into the woods… despite the fact that they carry a loaded pistol and no compass. The filmmakers further cheat by inexplicably cutting six hours of daylight out of their trek: ending one scene in mid-morning and beginning another one in full darkness. It’s bad enough that these kids couldn’t outwit your average hamster; Chernobyl Diaries has to add vast editorial cuts to their woes?
All of that skips around the uncomfortable fact that nothing beyond the location itself piques our interest. Parker sidles up to the edges of the found footage format without quite going over the edge, a fact that doesn’t prevent the handheld cameras from delivering toxic levels of “been there, done that.” The nebulous threats fail to materialize into anything worth paying attention to, and the endless shots of terrified college students scuttling around an abandoned industrial park carry all the visual pizazz of a 1950s safety film. Chernobyl Diaries goes completely off the rails in the last ten minutes, but by then it’s a completely lost cause. I confess I’ve seen worse horror films this year, but none as pointless, half-baked and utterly dependent upon suspension of disbelief as this one. Watching the protagonists fall one by one, it becomes clear that this isn’t a cautionary example: it’s sweet Darwinism in action, making the human gene pool a less imbecilic place to breed.