Sunday, January 6, 2013

Chernobyl Diaries

TITLE: Chernobyl Diaries
SCORE: 3 out of 4

Hi! It's been over a year since my last review but here I am, still alive and still watching horror films. You thought I grew up, huh? Nope I just got too busy with dumb stuff like divorces and graduate school and such.

Anyway, so here we have Chernobyl Diaries. Our principle characters are doing some big "grand tour" after college graduation, or something -- I don't really know, but its in Central/Eastern Europe rather than Western Europe. Makes sense cause that would be a lot cheaper and that's what I'd do if I had any money to travel at all. After stopping in Prague and Kiev and probably Budapest and some other places they find themselves in Russia, about to go to Moscow.

Instead, the cheeky instigator of the bunch convinces them to do an "extreme tourism" package that involves touring the area hit by Chernobyl and nearby villages. It is led by ex-military Russian guy "Uri," who is surely "strong like ox" and "wery experienced!" (Ok he doesn't say that but he's still a ridiculous stereotype) Our four Americans are joined by a British couple who are on their honeymoon for this trip that is guaranteed to be safe and fun. The British dude has a neckbeard and a hipster keffiyeh so we can be sure that he is a total douche and not to be sad if he is killed. This all happens rather quickly, and they're all in an econo-van on their way to see the mutated sights only 12 minutes into the movie!

Stopping at a check point into the "exclusion zone" we become aware that Uri might not be quite on the up and up and this whole trip might not be exactly safe. As the instigator's weinerly lawful-good broseph counterpart (Chris, I think his name is) says, "it looks fuckin' sketchy, dude." He is quickly admonished and told to "enjoy, man!" Since he is such a weiner he obliges.

The van sneaks into the area with our young adventurers and their "tour guide," they stop and look around and encounter a very weird mutated fish thing. That's probably a good guidepost as to when build-up suspense stops and the horror starts and it's not even 20 minutes into the 98 minute film. Economy of plot is reaching golden heights here. The young westerners aren't exactly beloved, but I didn't really feel as indifferent to them as some other films, and I certainly wasn't hostile to their existence and wanted to see them horribly murdered like is sometimes the case. I think where a lot of films like this go wrong is that they spend longer than 10 minutes introducing the ensemble. They spend some time looking around at some empty buildings, and then Uri's van is sabotaged somehow, in a place supposedly empty of people... and we begin our decent into the real expressionist nightmare.

This film does a great job of turning abandoned apartment blocks & other soviet architecture, as well as forests of leafless trees, into eerie specters of creeping dread. The sickly, desaturated color processing and hand-cam documentary filming style also help the mood quite a bid. The extended shots of black nothing during the night sequences & occasional way-too-dark shots of formless shapes in unlit rooms did not help though, perhaps the owls in the audience will enjoy them but in my mind the sentiment is "don't show the monster," not "don't show anything at all."

I quite liked this; it kept me on edge and wondering what was happening and what was going to happen. While basically formulaic and predictable, as the details unfolded things were very interesting and unexpected. Screaming 20-somethingers terrorized in the woods might not be very original, or truly terrifying to a regular horror fan, but I think it earns extra points for using an unusual setting well and not wasting a bunch of time on backstory no one cares about.

Chernobyl Diaries is not the kind of intense experience a horror fan would relish watching alone in a dark room, I would recommend it as fare for a party or a movie night with friends. It's not without it's charms and is probably worth viewing at least once. It feels like a literal thrill ride once it kicks into gear and is certainly enjoyable with pizza, beer, and perhaps something scarier to put on afterwards.