Some things are tried and true because, goddamnit, they still work. Take a cast of unknown young-twenty-somethings, throw them into an unfamiliar, possibly haunted locale, give us enough information to grasp the basic set-up but be utterly dumbfounded by anything else that happens, concentrate a lot more on what’s unknown (and leave it that way for the most part, even when you show it) instead of what we do know, amp up the isolation and paranoia, and you could have the recipe for a pretty decent scare flick.
Oh, sure, it might suck if the director’s incompetent and the actors are so bad as to be completely unconvincing, and plenty of films following more or less this exact same blueprint have sucked, but if you know what you’re doing, there’s no reason an audience still can’t be entertained by this kind of thing.
Director Brad Parker, the guy behind the newly-released Chernobyl Diaries (working from a script by Paranormal Activity creator Oren Peli and Shane and Carey VanDyke), knows what he’s doing. His film employs many of the “hand-held” visual trappings of the like find in films from The Blair Witch Project to Cloverfield to Quarantine to Apollo 13, but wisely does away with the tired plot contrivance of having to explicitly point out that this is a “home movie” or “found footage” of some sort. He just apes the look to give the unsettling locale of an abandoned town within spitting distance of the infamous Chernobyl nuclear power plant an even more alien, ominous feeling — and while it may be a cheap trick, it does the job.
The script itself is pretty solid, too — it doesn’t dwell much on explanations, but ratchets up the tension at a precise, well-orchestrated rate. Each character, from the American asshole-older-brother-living-in-Kiev-for-reasons-never-explained to his heart-of-gold younger brother to younger brother’s girlfriend to the young couple joining the “extreme tourism” journey into the radioactive (but apparently sort of safe in certain places if you don’t hang around for too long) post-meltdown wasteland are given just enough personality to make them interesting and semi-involving without toying with the standard, by-now-archetypal images of folks in these kinds of films too much, and the perils they quickly face are plausible enough to maintain some semblance of “holy shit I can sort of see this happening” without being pedestrian enough to veer into the territory of actual narrative plausibility. In essence, you can believe their predicament without being able to directly relate to it.
One of the most common criticisms I’ve seen online so far of Chernobyl Diaries is that it’s totally beyond the pale to somehow suggest that people would be stupid enough to pay good money to tour an abandoned, radioactive ghost town. On paper, that seems like a reasonable point. For all of about one second, until you remember that there are idiots out there willing to fork over their hard-earned cash to bungee jump off cliffs and zip-line across fucking canyons. One person’s idiocy is another person’s adventure, after all, and if there were tours like this actually offered, ya know what? Just about every day there would probably at least a few folks foolhardy enough to go. So there’s that gripe out the window.
And without that, there’s really not much to dislike here. The Serbian and Hungarian filming locales utilized by Parker look an awful lot like any former town right next to the biggest nuclear disaster in history would look, the acting is all perfectly competent, the scares (even the cheap ones) are fun, the dialogue is consistent with what you or I would probably be saying under the same circumstances, the actions of the characters run the gamut from “that seems sensible” to “dear God, what the fuck are you thinking doing that?,” and the overall atmosphere is one of tight, accelerating foreboding and dread. It certainly doesn’t take any risks — hell, the characters even die in more or less exactly the order you would predict (although it does adhere to Joe Bob Briggs’ classic rule of good drive-in cinema, namely that it at least seems like anyone can die at any time) — and it doesn’t break any new ground, but since when did a horror film need to do those things to be good? If you just want a movie that does a good job of delivering exactly what it sets out to deliver, then you could do a whole lot worse than Chernobyl Diaries. It’s pretty standard stuff, but it’s fun standard stuff that should leave a smile on the face of the average genre fan, even if they can’t specifically remember any special reason why within a few hours of having seen it.