'Chernobyl Diaries': Radioactive Sludge
Kat Murphy, Special to MSN Movies
We hadn't spent five minutes with three of the eminently forgettable 20somethings cast as obligatory mutant fodder in "Chernobyl Diaries" when my friend hissed, "I already want all of these people to die." Unfortunately, we had an hour or so to wait before that wish was granted.
While we slog toward that happy ending, first-time helmer Brad Parker (hard to believe he served as second-unit director on the excellent "Let Me In") and producer-co-writer Oren Peli ("Paranormal Activity") subject us to the stultifying pleasures of yet another assembly-line horror movie: handheld camera work that gins up unease and suspense by nonstop weaving and jittering; cardboard characters, offed one by one; inane dialogue; jump-out-of-the-dark ambushes by "things" you never quite see clearly; endless running and screaming ... and then there were none. No surprises, just the same old tropes, sans irony, energy, intelligence. It's a decades-long genre nightmare from which we can't seem to wake.
The excuse for serving up this stale stuff is an excursion by a clutch of
young tourists to Pripyat, the city in Ukraine abandoned when Chernobyl nuclear
reactor number 4 blew up in 1987. All those identical, empty apartment
buildings, the rotting Ferris wheel, the strange sepia-colored trees and grass —
such a landscape should generate a terrible sense of wrongness, the leftover
horror of contemporary catastrophe. But it remains background, labeled "creepy."
The filmmakers haven't a clue how to infect Place with metastasizing terror.
For contrast, check out the way the underground settings in a little gem called "Raw Meat" (originally titled "Death Line,"1973) are mined for maximum frisson. Deep under London, the unpleasant spawn of some workers who were abandoned after the 1893 collapse of a subway tunnel are still abroad. Like Chernobyl's radioactive mutants, they are hungry. The miasma of sheer horror that "Raw Meat" conjures makes standing on a subway platform alone, late at night, unthinkable.
When "Chernobyl"'s gang is stranded in the dead city overnight, you're primed for claustrophobic heebie-jeebies as the girls and boys huddle inside a dimly lit van, windows opaque with moisture, a fragile shelter from things that go bump in the Pripyat night. But Parker's camera is all over the map, whipping from window to window, pretending to be someone's hysterical POV. This familiar brand of distraction draws attention to itself; stillness and silence might have created slow, paralyzing dread.
"Diaries" blows every opportunity to scare us. Either the set-up's so old hat it trumpets "you know what's coming," or the punch gets pulled because Parker doesn't know how to let scary build within the frame, how to give it time to really get under your skin. No, he's already jerked the camera off in another direction for a new thrill, which he then cuts away from before you can fully register what it was.
One exception, the only reason "Diaries" gets any part of a star: Tourguide Yuri's heard some worrisome noises, so he reconnoiters down a hallway in one of the deserted buildings. Camera holds on the hallway, as Yuri eventually disappears out of sight. We wait, along with the watching kids, for a beat ... another beat ... one more ... and then something explodes down that hallway right into the camera, into our faces. Sure, the scare is telegraphed, but Parker manages, just this once, to let the thing play out in its own good time.
There's no really good reason to belabor the shortcomings of such a cinematic non-event. Moviegoers don't need reviewers to tell them how bad "Chernobyl Diaries" is. They already know, without having seen it. When the template itself becomes a joke, the horror movie has largely devolved into crappy comedy.
Kat Murphy once had the pleasure of writing a book-length comparison of Howard Hawks and Ernest Hemingway, friends and fellow travelers in fiction (Quentin Tarantino reckoned it "cool."). She's reviewed movies in newspapers and magazines (Movietone News, Film Comment, Village Voice, Film West, Steadycam) and on websites (Reel.com, Cinemania.com, Amazon.com). Her writing has been included in book anthologies ("Women and Cinema," "The Myth of the West," "Best American Movie Writing 1998"). During her checkered career, Kat's done everything from writing speeches for Bill Clinton, Jack Lemmon, Harrison Ford, et al., to researching torture-porn movies for a law firm. She adores Bigelow, Breillat and Denis -- and arguing about movies in any and all arenas.