I’ve always enjoyed movie plots where naïve travelers receive their comeuppance for making very bad decisions. Though I draw the line at torture-porn like the Hostel series, anything from The Beach to Eurotrip will usually lure me in on premise alone. Chernobyl Diaries has a formula horror-plot, for sure, but stands out because of its unique, genuinely modern-nightmare locale.
A trio of young Americans traipse across Europe, arriving in Kiev, Ukraine to visit Paul (Jonathan Sadowski), the brother of Chris (Jesse McCartney). Paul is the classic 20-something ex-pat. He showed up in Kiev and never left (“It’s awesome here!”). Brotherly tension is the only real attempt at character development, as Paul hooks up his visitors with an “extreme” tour guide named Uri that will take them to the sealed-off, radioactive region of Chernobyl. Paul thinks is a great idea! Chris, not so much. The girls are in, and well, Chris doesn’t want to look like a wuss, so…
The tour van turns out to be a beat-up relic, and Uri is burly ex-military. The kids, who have been joined on the “extreme” tour by a moony-eyed backpacker couple, are nervous and thrilled as Uri takes the van through a barricaded side entrance (after they are turned away by security checkpoint guards). No birds sing, roads are decrepit, and buildings are overgrown with plants as they enter the town of Pripyat. Evacuated within 48 hours of the Chernobyl disaster in 1986, it became an instant ghost town, formerly with 50,000 inhabitants. It truly is spooky, especially as the Geiger counter’s clicking abruptly changes tempo as the group walks around the grounds.
But to stick with formula, the van breaks down! There are sounds in the night! Someone gets attacked in the darkness, and all we know is what the panicked survivor screams to the others: “They got him!!!!”
Chernobyl Diaries, indeed, is just a classic-formula haunted house movie that just happens to be set in a spooky abandoned industrial wasteland. Things go bump in the night, flashlight batteries slowly die out, and kids get picked off one by one. But there is the extra bonus of dread as we all know that the longer the kids are stuck in Pripyat, the longer they are getting exposed to poisonous radiation. This invisible and very real threat gives it that extra edge that made the film surprisingly enjoyable for what is basically pulp-horror.