Saturday, May 26, 2012

In Theaters: CHERNOBYL DIARIES (2012)

(US, 2012)

Directed by Brad Parker.  Written by Oren Peli, Shane Van Dyke, Carey Van Dyke.  Cast: Jesse McCartney, Jonathan Sadowski, Nathan Phillips, Devin Kelley, Ingrid Bolso Berdal, Dimitri Diatchenko, Olivia Taylor Dudley. (R, 88 mins)

Despite appearances and the involvement of PARANORMAL ACTIVITY mastermind Oren Peli as producer and co-writer, CHERNOBYL DIARIES is not another in the endless stream of "found footage" horror outings.  It does, however, rely heavily on shaky-cam to tell the story of four Americans--brothers Paul (Jonathan Sadowski of the somehow-lasted-for-an-entire-season TV series $#*! MY DAD SAYS ) and Chris (former teen pop sensation Jesse McCartney), Chris' girlfriend Natalie (Olivia Taylor Dudley), and Natalie's friend Amanda (Devin Kelley)--and two Australians, Michael (Nathan Phillips of WOLF CREEK) and Zoe (Ingrid Bolso Berdal of the Norwegian horror film COLD PREY), on an "extreme tour" day trip to Pripyat, the town abandoned after the Chernobyl nuclear power plant meltdown in April 1986.  Led by gregarious ex-Special Forces tour guide Uri (Dimitri Diatchenko), who's been supervising these excursions for five years, the tourists are denied entrance at a checkpoint because of a "maintenance issue."  Undeterred, Uri tells his customers "There's more than one way into Pripyat," and he takes them in through a roundabout way through a surrounding wooded area.  While radiation levels are elevated, a few hours exposure won't do any harm, and the biggest surprise they get is the sudden appearance of a wild bear.  But once back at the van, Uri finds the electrical wires torn apart.  Then the howling and the wailing start, and they quickly realize they're not alone and Pripyat is not abandoned.

CHERNOBYL DIARIES, directed by veteran visual effects artist Brad Parker, does an admirable job of creating a grimly ominous, dread-filled atmosphere in the early going.  Seamlessly integrated stock footage of the real abandoned Pripyat blends with scenes shot in similar-looking locations in Serbia and Hungary (even recreating the Pripyat ferris wheel) and the resulting imagery is often very effective.  Great effort was made in the production design, and it shows.  It's too bad Peli wasn't as diligent about the script, which he co-wrote with Dick Van Dyke's grandsons Shane and Carey, both behind-the-scenes veterans of numerous Asylum ripoffs for SyFy, including STREET RACER, THE DAY THE EARTH STOPPED, TRANSMORPHERS: FALL OF MAN, TITANIC II, and even the Oren Peli knockoff PARANORMAL ENTITY.  Once the menace makes itself apparent, CHERNOBYL DIARIES basically turns into a HILLS HAVE EYES redux, with mutant Pripyat residents stalking the ever-dwindling group of tourists.  Most of the film is shot in darkness, illuminated only by flashlights, which make it incredibly easy for the mutants to capture their prey.  Also helping them are the numerous instances of convenient stupidity demonstrated by characters who must be killed for the plot to proceed.  One such demise is handled in a laughably clumsy fashion, as one of the tourists seems to momentarily forget how to climb a ladder, fumbling about and half-assedly trying to grab a rung, basically waiting for a couple beats until Parker gives some Serbian extras the cue to grab her and take her away.  Things just get dumber as the film goes along, culimating in a conclusion that could take US-Russian relations back to the glorious heyday of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

What can you say about a horror movie where the most chilling moments are the quiet ones where nothing's happening and you're just observing the setting and the locations?  If you really want to be unsettled, just Google some images of the vacated Pripyat.  Those will send more chills down your spine than anything in the watchable but very tired CHERNOBYL DIARIES.

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