(by Dustin Putman
A stock horror movie setup and a real-life tragedy from twenty-six years ago merge in anxiety-inspiring ways in "Chernobyl Diaries," a thoroughly frightening study in how to do a tried-and-true formula proud. Bradley Parker, a special effects supervisor on films such as 2010's "Let Me In," makes his taut directorial debut under the tutelage of one Mr. Oren Peli, the creator of 2009's "Paranormal Activity" who produces and, along with Carey Van Dyke & Shane Van Dyke, writes here. Favoring old-fashioned suspense and a creeping sense of danger that finally bubbles over in the home stretch, Parker crafts a genre piece that is only graphically violent when the narrative calls for it (not often), and willing to leave the major threat in the obscure shadows. Indeed, what the viewer's imagination ratchets up is probably far scarier than what the makers could actualize on the screen. Article continues below
During their travels across Europe, the responsible Chris (Jesse McCartney), his longtime girlfriend Natalie (Olivia Taylor Dudley), and her recently dumped best friend Amanda (Devin Kelly) stop in Kiev to visit Chris' fly-by-night older brother Paul (Jonathan Sandowski). He moved out of the States a while back, much to the protestations of their parents, and now Paul wants to show Chris and his buddies a good time. His plan: take them on an "extreme tour" hosted by Uri (Dimitri Diatchenko) to the abandoned city of Pripyat, once home to the workers and families of the 1986 Chernobyl power plant meltdown. With backpackers Michael (Nathan Phillips) and Zoe (Ingrid Bolsø Berdal) also along for the tour, the group set out on the two-hour trek to their destination. They are assured that radiation levels are low enough to be safe for the short amount of time they'll be there, and so the sightseeing and walks through the desolate buildings are at first fun and intriguing. Once the truck won't start—it's been tampered with—and night falls, however, circumstances quickly spiral downward. Separated from the outside world, it becomes exceedingly probable that they are not really alone.
The idea of whole neighborhoods and towns getting abruptly deserted and largely forgotten about is unsettling to think about, said places frozen in time and haunted by those that are no more. Such is the very authentic case of Pripyat, within seeing distance of the Chernobyl reactors. It's such a humdinger of a location for a horror movie that it's surprising it hasn't been more often used as fodder for things going bump in the night. That "Chernobyl Diaries" was filmed at least partially on location there lends it an uncommon authenticity. The production values of its natural, broken-down, dilapidated state can't be bought or convincingly replicated. What they do achieve is bless the proceedings with a decidedly consistent lurking foreboding. Although director Bradley Parker takes his time in revealing the whos and whats that the protagonists face, it is readily apparent that lives are in danger. That's all that truly needs to be known for Parker to work his blackly magical spell.
It is a given in this kind of movie that characters will occasionally do things that place them more in harm's way than not. Credit this one, at least, for masterminding legitimate reasons why the people go into dank structures or out into the pitch-dark woods when they know better. Likewise, though there are a few leaps in logistics, a couple of them having to do with their super-charged but presumably signal-free cell phones, the bulk of what occurs does so through the unavoidable hands of fate and not for a lack of trying. As for the aforementioned ensemble, they are fairly cut-and-paste as multidimensional figures, but sympathetic and raw enough to put rooting stakes in. Placed in a heightened life-or-death struggle like this, anyway, there probably wouldn't be a whole lot of time for getting-to-know-you chit-chat. All the actors do their jobs very well in that they act natural and scared out of their wits. Of them, recording artist Jesse McCartney (2011's "Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked") is the best-known and most charismatic. Watching him here and remembering how very good he was on the 2004-2006 CW drama "Summerland," there's no reason for him not to have the same level career as someone like Zac Efron.
"Chernobyl Diaries" will have all but the most stoic of audience members jumping and squirming in their seats. It's an enthralling experience, methodic but solid in its editing as things get ever hairier. Scenes involving a very big something (we'll keep it on the down-low) barreling through an empty apartment building, another involving a pack of wild dogs and a rickety bridge, a run-in with a child-sized figure standing motionless in the moonlight, and a cat-and-mouse game in a kitchen reminding of the velociraptor sequence in 1993's "Jurassic Park" are just a few memorable set-pieces of many. As for the finale, a breathless chase up and down and through a steely industrial landscape culminating in the discovery that they've wandered perilously outside of the safety zone, it lives up to expectations while remaining relentlessly uncompromising. Not everything is answered at the end of "Chernobyl Diaries," and that's precisely as it should be. The unknown genuinely is the scariest thing of all.