Famed for his work on the Paranormal Activity franchise, writer Oren Peli has let his standards slip somewhat, in Bradley Parker's not-very-scary horror movie Chernobyl Diaries.
We follow a group of young American tourists on vacation in Europe. Chris (Jesse McCartney), his girlfriend Natalie (Olivia Dudley) and her friend Amanda (Devin Kelley) are staying with Chris' brother Paul (Jonathan Sadowski), and one day decide to go and visit Moscow in Russia. However, Paul has a different idea, to go on a extreme tour of the abandoned city of Chernobyl, with specialist tour guide Uri (Dimitri Diatchenko).
Chernobyl has been empty now for over 25 years following the nuclear disaster that released radioactive contamination which made the place a safety hazard, and completely unliveable. Tours must therefore be short-lived, but when the group find that their van has broken down, they soon realise they're going to be in the abandoned area for a while, and it is at that point they realise they are not alone...
Despite teasing us with found footage early on, fortunately Parker decided to drop that angle, yet what transpires is hardly an improvement on the now overdone sub-genre. The problem with contemporary horror movies is that thanks to the likes of The Blair Witch Project, Paranormal Activity and Rec., such films have set a high bar, having been about as creative as you can be with the horror genre. That does now mean, however, that any "normal" horror movies seem too unambitious, placing a fair amount of pressure on film makers to try something unique, yet there is only so far they can go.
Yet what can save Chernobyl Diaries from mundanity is for it be incredibly scary, yet unfortunately that isn't the case either. There are a couple of relatively jumpy moments but ultimately there are few scenes that actually scare you at all, or leave a lasting affect of any kind. Much of that problem is the antagonists of the film, as quite simply, there are far too many of them. We have dogs, bears, weird human beings and the radiation levels all causing a threat to our protagonists. As a result it's difficult to fear any of those with any magnitude, as you're never quite sure what you're looking over your shoulder for.
It's a shame as this film has so much potential in it to be scary, with a brilliant concept of seven tourists trapped in an abandoned, eerie town. There is already a fear instilled within us when we look into and research Chernobyl, so we're already prepared for what could be a terrifying movie experience. Yet, like so many horror movies, as the story develops and unwinds, it all gets far too silly.
The narrative doesn't make much sense either, and though it doesn't always have to within horror movies, as this film is attempting naturalism it needs to stand by its approach and provide a story that seems somewhat believable, or at the very least, comprehensible. In fairness, and especially within the first half an hour, the dialogue is very naturalistic and well acted and the scene is set nicely, however, as the film progresses and the emphasis is based on the horror aspects, little is explained about what has actually survived in Chernobyl, how it survived at all, and what on earth it wants with our tourists.
Similarly to the majority of horror movies this year, Chernobyl Diaries is mediocre, uninteresting and most importantly, not very scary. In what continues to be a year to forget for the horror genre, Peli needs to be careful, because many more films like this one, and that "from the makers of Paranormal Activity..." tag will soon be long forgotten.