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A basic monster movie that benefits greatly from its unique setting, Chernobyl Diaries again demonstrates Oren Peli’s ability to wrest scares with minimal production values and a clever premise. The wunderkind behind Paranormal Activity came up with the story for this effort, which he also produced and co-scripted. While unlikely to match that franchise’s unworldly success—barring a “Fukushima Diaries,” there seems little prospect for a sequel—this low-budget horror film provides a reasonable quotient of scares.
The film concerns six twentysomethings who impulsively decide to forego their planned trip to Moscow to partake in some extreme tourism. Led by their guide Uri, a hulking ex-Special Services soldier, they embark on a tour of the Ukrainian town of Prypiat, abandoned since the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear reactor disaster rendered it uninhabitable.
Wandering through the eerie deserted apartment complexes, they manage to engage in the usual youthful tourist silliness, posing for romantic pictures and cracking wise. But their general uneasiness is not alleviated by such mock-serious comments by Uri as “I want you to tell me if you see something moving in the water.”
After a half-hour or so of subtle build-up, it’s when the group’s dilapidated van refuses to start that all hell breaks loose. As darkness falls, it soon becomes apparent that they are not quite as alone as they thought.
And so the hapless tourists are forced to deal with creatures ranging from wild dogs to, well, who knows what? The victim count quickly rises as they run into menacing figures who make vividly apparent the nasty effects of decades of radiation poisoning.
Or not so vividly, as director Brad Parker wisely eschews prolonged shots of the horrific creatures in favor of quick glimpses via jumpy hand-held camera work that only hint at their physical deformities. Although the film is mainly shot documentary style, Peli does manage to work in his usual found-footage format in one key sequence.
Even with its brisk 90-minute running time (including credits), Chernobyl Diaries soon proves repetitive with its endless scenes of the frightened victims wandering into forbidding environs only to keep running into things that go bump in the night.
But the novelty of the setting ultimately proves highly effective. Shot mainly in Eastern European locations that effectively stand in for Prypiat, which is now actually a tourist site, the film is highly convincing in its verisimilitude. Adding greatly to the overall effect is the realistic production design that well conveys buildings long abandoned to nature and the use of such evocative locations as tunnels underneath the streets of Belgrade.
The youthful performers, who include such familiar faces as actor/pop star Jesse McCartney, are very natural in their terrified reactions, and Dimitri Diatchenko is so convincing as the affable but menacing Uri that he seems to have been recruited on the streets of Moscow.
Opens: Friday, May 25 (Warner Bros. Pictures)
Production: Alcon Entertainment, FilmNation Entertainment, Oren Peli/Brian Witten Pictures
Cast: Devin Kelley, Jonathan Sadowski, Ingrid Boso Berdal, Olivia Taylor Dudley, Jesse McCartney, Nathan Phillips, Dimitri Diatchenko
Director: Brad Parker
Screenwriters: Oren Peli, Carey Van Dyke, Shane Van Dyke
Producers: Oren Peli, Brian Witten
Executive producers: Richard Sharkey, Rob Cowan, Andrew A. Kosove, Broderick Johnson, Allison Silver, Milan Popelka, Alison Cohen
Director of photography: Morten Soborg
Editor: Stan Salfas
Production designer: Aleksandar Denic
Costume designer: Momirka Bailovic
Music: Diego Stocco
Rated R, 90 min.
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