Chernobyl Diaries comes from the mind of Oren Peli, the man who gave the world the Paranormal Activity film. Although subsequently the films have become more tired and staid, the first episode was fresh and inventive, a scarefest made with a low budget eliciting visceral reactions to the simplest tricks. In short it was a welcomed piece of horror cinema, which meant that Peli’s latest attempt would come with high expectations. Peli has opted for a very simple design; Chernobyl Diaries is short and sharp, not spectacular but focused. Over and done with before there is time to pick any holes in it, Peli has not progressed from Paranormal Activity. It in fact may even be considered a step down, but it’s still damn entertaining.
Peli and director Brad Parker style Chernobyl Diaries like a video game. The build up is sufficient to get to know the characters but it is all dispensed with as quick as possible, taking just seven minutes to set the premise and three more before the young vacationers set off on their “extreme” trip to Pripyat near the sight of the Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine. Amidst a classic ensemble of forgettable and unlikeable American youth (with two Norwegians thrown in for colour) there is the enigmatic Uri (Dimitri Diatchenko), a former soldier who leads them to the abandoned town.
The silent desolation of Pripyat echoes popular videogame Resident Evil and encounters with a mutant fish and a foraging bear add jump scares to keep the viewer on the edge of their seat. When things start to get dangerous the tour group are paralysed with fear, Uri on the other hand remains reasonably calm. When Uri begins to become distressed then it is clear there is something very wrong. The group become trapped in their van in the dark in an excellent scene as mutants descend upon them from the blackness. The soundtrack has the rhythm of a heart beating and all hell breaks loose as they leave the relative security of the van. The shadowy figures are cleverly hidden throughout the movie as the camera pans back and forth. A shadow may be there one minute, the next it vanishes into the all consuming darkness.
Despite the videogame aesthetics and tension, Chernobyl Diaries does little else. It is too short to expand themes and it does not expand its characters in anyway, swiftly skirting over any back-story. Although part of its fun is the way it dives straight into the action, it renders the film nothing more than a little ditty, something to look back on fondly but would never inspire discussion. But then this kind of films is essential and Peli seems very proficient in utilising different styles for different purposes. It will be interesting to see if he has anything else up his sleeve.
Chernobyl Diaries is available on DVD and Blu-Ray now courtesy of Studiocanal
Follow Jonny on Twitter @joffglen https://twitter.com/joffglen