Horror films are often the first to comment on the mass-scale traumas of the real world, but those traumas are usually sublimated in metaphor, like George Romero’s zombies or the killing floor in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. There’s a good reason for this: Directly evoking an ongoing human tragedy—like, say, the 1986 Chernobyl disaster—for a few ghoulish scares might be in questionable taste. And yet here’s Chernobyl Diaries, scripted by Paranormal Activity creator Oren Peli, which posits that there are survivors in the abandoned city of Pripyat (woo-hoo!), but they’re deranged, cannibalistic mutants ([sadface]). Though Diaries mostly abandons the vid-cam aesthetic of the Paranormal franchise, in all other ways, it’s The Hills Have Eyes meets The Blair Witch Project, a flashlight tour through a stupid urban legend, with the unseemly authenticity only real devastation can provide.
Even without the faux-doc trappings, Chernobyl Diaries unfolds with the same improvisational looseness in the early going, as a group of Americans in Kiev embark on a day of “extreme tourism.” At the end of a summer-long European tour with his girlfriend (Olivia Dudley) and her photographer pal (Devin Kelley), Jesse McCartney pays a visit to brother Jonathan Sadowski in Kiev, with plans to continue their sightseeing tour in Moscow. But Sadowski—the wild man to McCartney’s responsible type, which is as deep as the character work gets here—suggests they try a sketchy-sounding day tour of the areas outside the Chernobyl reactors. So off they go with a young Australian couple in tow, following an ex-Special Forces thug (Dimitri Diatchenko) on a back route into Pripyat. He assures them that a day’s worth of mild radiation won’t do any harm, but they soon have other concerns.
Divorced from its real-life context, Chernobyl Diaries can be appreciated a little for the atmosphere it gets out of the haunted, fog-swamped buildings and the characters’ headlong, near-blind rush through stairwells and corridors that may lead them to safety, or deeper into the chaos. (Squeamish viewers with a tolerance for bad radiation jokes may have to cover their three eyes.) But it’s mostly boilerplate horror, plucking visual ideas from better sources and relying on the sick novelty of referencing an actual catastrophe. The green light awaits Nagasaki Notes.