Thursday, May 31, 2012

Movie Review: Chernobyl Diaries

Chernobyl Diaries ** ½
Directed by: Bradley Parker.
Written by: Oren Peli & Carey Van Dyke & Shane Van Dyke.
Starring: Ingrid Bolsø Berdal (Zoe), Dimitri Diatchenko (Uri), Olivia Taylor Dudley (Natalie), Devin Kelley (Amanda), Jesse McCartney (Chris), Nathan Phillips (Michael), Jonathan Sadowski (Paul).

Horror filmmakers never seem to have a problem coming up with good premises for their movies – they just have trouble following through on their promising ideas. The latest example is Chernobyl Diaries, which has a great location, and a great setup, before devolving in the last act to yet another pretty, young Americans being chased and slaughtered movie. There is much to like about the film – I just wish the filmmakers had found a more interesting way to resolve the film.

The setup for the movie is that three Americans – lovebirds Chris and Natalie (Jesse McCartney and Oliver Taylor Dudley) and their friend Amanda (Devin Kelley) go on a trip to Europe – and end up in Kiev, visiting Chris’ brother Paul (Jonathan Sadowski), who lives there. Paul wants to take the three young tourists on an adventure – and finds just the man to take them. Uri (Dimitri Diatchenko) runs an “adventure tourist” agency – and says he can take them to the city right next to Chernobyl – where 25 years ago the nuclear disaster there forced the residents to flee in minutes. The entire town is still there, but completely abandoned. Joining them on the tour is a honeymooning couple, Michael and Zoe (Nathan Phillips and Ingrid Bolso Berdal). The city is as advertised – abandoned and creepy in the extreme. They go, they take some pictures and generally have a good time. But when it’s time to leave the van, of course, won’t start. And obviously there is no cell phone reception. So they are trapped in the city overnight – and at night, they find they are not alone.

The setup for the movie is good – we spend enough time with the characters so that they are not just meat for the grinder when they start dying, which we all know they will. And the location is a stroke of genius. In horror movies, if you get the right location, you are half way there to making a good movie – and an abandoned, dilapidated, overgrown city, next to a nuclear power plant, with some strange looking animals lurking around is a great location. The idea is so simple, yet so great, you have to wonder why no one ever thought of it before. When strange things do start happening, they are effectively handled. Although co-written and produced by Oren Peli, who is behind the Paranormal Activity movies, this is not a found footage horror film – but the handheld camera work, that doesn’t quite let you see everything you want just ratchets up the tension.

The first two-thirds of Chernobyl Diaries, therefore, is an effective horror film. The setup works, the location works, and there are some genuinely scary, creepy moments. Like all good horror movies, it keeps you on edge, waiting to see what is going to happen next. The problems all come in the last third of the movie – when the secrets are finally revealed. The truth is, after that setup, the finale is more than a little bit of a letdown. The secrets to the movie are fairly obvious – the least original idea that you could actually have given the setup. What’s worse though, is that the finale is not even all that well handled. We get the same sort of chase sequences, and death scenes, that we have seen in hundreds of other horror movies – and seen it done better almost as often. The last shot of the movie is supposed to be shocking – but it’s all too obvious.

So in the end, Chernobyl Diaries is two thirds of a good horror movie. That’s better than many horror movies that don’t even get that far. That still doesn’t mean it’s a good movie though.

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