Okay, I was really psyched about this movie because I wanted so badly to see what the fuss about Paranormal Activity was all about, without actually watching it because I’m shit-scared of ghosts like that. So when I found out that Chernobyl Diaries was written by the same guy (Oren Peli), it got my attention because I figure I can handle radioactive Russians for sure.
Standing outside the cinema, I suddenly panicked, because what if I couldn’t? What if the suspense and terror would be too much for a pussy like me?
Well, I was right and wrong about that.
The Chernobyl Diaries starts out really well. The opening montage of holidaying friends is quite authentic and well-done, and you could really feel that you were watching someone’s home videos. It doesn’t get across much about the characters, but at this point you really only needed to know their names and their relationship statuses (two were in a relationship, and one was the add-on friend, and the jerk is the other guy’s brother).
In fact, the whole first half of the movie was really well done. Basically the spoiler-free summary is: four friends go on an extreme tour to Prypiat, the irradiated town near the Chernobyl disaster. Another couple tags along on the tour, and together with the Russian tour guide they head out for a merry adventure in a radioactive ghost town. Needless to say, the van breaks down before they can get out, and everything goes to hell.
And this was all done extremely well. I loved the banter between the friends, and it all felt really real at this point. The sarcastic “I want to be the funny guy in the group” quips behind the tour guide’s back really added to the feel of the movie… that this was just a bunch of regular people doing what should be a regular thing.
There a few mini-scares and tension-building scenes leading up to the evening, and without giving it away I’ll just say it’s all exceedingly well-done with great timing and pacing. The cinema was cold, but I couldn’t really figure out if I was shivering from the cold or the tension. The success of the movie carries all up until they sort of show you know what’s hunting them.
And that’s the moment the film breaks down.
I can probably pinpoint the exact moment the film breaks down, and that’s the first scene where you get a semi-decent look at what’s out there. The moment you see that, you start working out that this movie doesn’t make any sense. The characters break down and start to act in a way that doesn’t make any sense. The easy-going bunch that worked well as friends on a tour suddenly become idiots, and you kind of just want most of them to die.
In fact, there are only two characters that you will want to see on the screen at that point:
- The Aussie guy (played by Nathan Philips), because he’s the only guy that shows any initiative when it comes to making decisions or a plan. He’s a little bit annoying because he uses his catchphrases “Oi!” and “Oeeei!” as often as Pikachu says his own name, but aside from that he’s pretty cool.
- The wimpy guy’s girlfriend (played by Olivia Taylor Dudley), because she flashes her cleavage in just about every shot she’s in. But in case you’re wondering, she never gets naked or shows any full tit shots – this is not that kind of horror movie!
But the thing that annoyed me the most is whatever it is that’s hunting and killing them (which I’m not going to reveal – I’ll just refer to them as “They”). They just doesn’t make sense. And it’s not a scary “I’m freaking out because I don’t know what’s going on” kind of confusion either… it’s more like a “huh?” confusion.
Put it this way… I should be gripping my seat in tension, instead of trying to work out in my head what Their motivation is, because it looks to me like They are just sort of messing around with the tourists – like a psychotic Ashton Kutcher waiting in the shadows and jumping out for a quick “BOO! You’re punk’d!” before quickly retreating to the shadows to do it again a few minutes later. Is that menacing? Not really. Why don’t they just kill them all on the first night?
Are they hungry? Are they vengeful? I don’t know because they don’t have any set pattern to their actions, and it bothered me so much I stopped being scared.
One thing about Them is They’d always rush at the tourists in a really scary heart-pounding way, but when they’ve about a few meters from the tourists they’ll just take a chill pill and relax. This happens a few times in the movie.
It’s like my dog Sonic – the neighborhood cats always outrun him, though one time I saw him chase a cat into a corner. But once he had the cat trapped he didn’t know what to do. He just stopped and stood there, barking without making a move.
The ending? Forget about it. By the mid point of the movie, both my wifey and I figured out that there’s really only one way for the movie to end and we were just impatiently waiting for it to happen.
I wanted to like this movie, and honestly, the first half of it is a good tutorial on how to create tension from pacing and not showing the audience too much. Actually, come to think of it, the second half of it is also a good tutorial – but on what not to do.
So in that sense, I do recommend this movie, as a study on what to do and what not to do in a horror movie. Don’t show too much, because it’s scarier that way. But for crying out loud, dude… just because the audience doesn’t need to know what’s going on doesn’t mean you as the writer and director have that option too!
PS There is one super-creepy super scary moment in the movie that is amazingly well-done… but you saw it in the trailer already.
The Chernobyl Diaries opens in Singapore TODAY!