The subject of a post Armageddon society meltdown is fast becoming a popular direction for modern horror – at least if films like Chernobyl Diaries are anything to go by. This apocalyptic chiller by director Brad Parker is truly unsettling, which is strange as the storyline is so riddled with genre clichés it should barely be able to hold itself together let alone keep your attention for the ninety minute running time – a feat which it manages admirably, despite itself.
In 1986 a reactor at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in the Ukraine exploded contaminating everything for miles around. Everyone in the local city of Pripyat, which housed the facility’s workers and their families, were evacuated immediately and the area became a ghost town.
Fast-forward twenty-five years. Six young twenty-somethings Amanda, Paul, Zoe, Natalie, Chris and Michael (Devin Kelley, Jonathan Sadowski, Ingrid Bolsø Berdal, Olivia Taylor Dudley, Jesse McCartney and Nathan Phillips) are touring Eastern Europe. In Kiev they meet Uri (Dimitri Diatchenko), a man whose company offers ‘extreme’ tours of the abandoned Pripyat. Despite initial misgivings the group decide to go for the day-trip – after all the area has been deserted for twenty-five years and the radiation levels are now negligible, so what could possibly go wrong? Well, when Uri decides to take an ‘alternative’ route having been turned back from an army checkpoint on the borders of the city you’d think alarm-bells would start ringing. And they do, but not until after the group finds their van tampered with on returning from exploring the city. It’s then they realise the area may not be deserted after all – a discovery which unfortunately comes too late.
As said everything about Chernobyl Diaries screams ‘done before’. From Uri and his suspect business set-up – one glimpse of which would send any normal person running for the first train back to western civilisation – to transport which won’t start just when you most need it, the standard frightfest scenarios are well signposted, yet the young protagonists continue to walk into them with their eyes wide open.
The old approach of a slow build up strategically interspersed with false start shocks – watch out in particular for the scene in one of Pripyat’s abandoned apartment blocks – is surprisingly effective, as for the majority of the time the perpetrators of the ensuing horrors go unseen, at least until the climax. Mix this with suitably energetic and frenzied performances from the young cast and some wonderfully atmospheric locations and the resulting film, though perhaps not a classic, is definitely enough to make you think twice about going on dodgy European coach trips any-time soon.