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.