Review: Chernobyl Diaries / Cert: 15 / Director: Bradley Parker / Screenplay: Oren Peli, Carey Van Dyke / Starring: Jesse McCartney, Jonathan Sadowski, Olivia Dudley, Dimitri Diatchenko / Release Date: October 22nd
Over 25 years since that infamous reactor meltdown, Chernobyl remains high on most people's lists of names to give you the willies, so you had to expect that someone would eventually use it as the starting point for a horror flick. Backpackers Chris (McCartney), his girlfriend Natalie (Dudley) and their friend Amanda (Kelley) arrive in Kiev en route to Moscow, to rendezvous with Chris' elder brother Paul (Sadowksi). Taking a fancy to Amanda and eager to impress her, Paul (who is quickly sketched in as wild and devil-may-care) proposes a jaunt to the ghost town of Pripyat, once home to the workers of Chernobyl. Chris (sensible and whiny) objects, but the girls overrule him. Should've listened to Chris, girls.
Enter Uri (Diatchenko), muscle-bound ex-Special Forces goon turned extreme tourism guide. Along with two other backpackers, they all head off in his rickety van and are soon idling contentedly among the ruins. But then the van won't start, night falls and things come out of the darkness…
Much of this works very well. Uri is a convincing and sympathetic character, gruffly paternal, exploiting his country's history for profit but also genuinely saddened by it (such a shame he makes an early exit). The sets and locations are very good, with just the right brand of monumental shabbiness: a block of flats with a huge portrait of Lenin running down one side, a futuristic underground concourse with a slimy pond and a skylight riddled with roots, and, eventually, the reactor itself, a place that causes your skin to steam. There's some tweaking of conventions, too, with the two extra backpackers, whom you expect to become instant mutant-fodder, actually faring better than some of the more well-established characters. And, while none of the cast apart from Diatchenko exactly leaps out of you, the ensemble acting has a very believable ebb and flow.
The problem is that director Brad Parker seems uncertain when and how to tighten the screws. There are multiple sources of danger – baldy humanoid mutants lurking in the city's underground passageways, packs of wild dogs, fish with big chompers swimming about in the river – but they're deployed extremely sparingly. It's as if Parker, who has a background in digital visual effects, was determined to prove he could make an effective shocker without the safety net of lots of CGI. And he half succeeds. But in the end a certain sameyness creeps into proceedings as the survivors tear down endless corridors in flight from something-or-other.
For all that, this is an intriguing effort with a touch of class. And fingers crossed they bring back Uri from the dead for a sequel – maybe him versus the fish.
Special Features: Alternate Ending, Deleted Scene, Chernobyl Conspiracy Viral Video, Uri's Extreme Tours Infomercial