When is a found footage horror film not a found footage horror film? When none of the characters scream at the person holding the camera.
That's pretty much exactly what the new horror flick Chernobyl Diaries is: a rather typical tale of six young idiots who visit somewhere they REALLY shouldn't, and briefly live to regret it. The only factors that separate this movie from so many of a similar ilk is that A) this actually isn't a found footage movie, just a horror flick with some really sketchy cinematography, and B) the location our dummies are visiting ... is the infamous Chernobyl nuclear power plant. Yes, the one that went kaboom back in 1986. Whether or not this is a tacky location for a stalk 'n' stab horror flick is a question for people more socially-concerned than myself; I just want to know if we have a good horror flick here.
Despite the aforementioned cinematography, which wanders across the location like a drunk, and the patently familiar tale of "arrogant youths messing with something they shouldn't," Chernobyl Diaries does have some solid assets in its corner. Directed by a first-timer, written by a pair of guys who write Asylum flicks, and produced by Paranormal Activity's Oren Peli, the flick may start out in bland and perfunctory fashion, but once we hit the actual Chernobyl location, the familiarity of the screenplay gives way to some actual novelty: this is one oppressively effective location for a horror film. Our unwelcome visitors poke through apartments, labs, playgrounds, and parks -- and even without the perpetual promise of creepy monsters and gruesome dispatches, Chernobyl Diaries presents a wonderfully creepy location -- when the cinematographer stops flailing his camera all over the place, obviously.
The cast, to be fair, is quite a bit better than what we normally see in this type of horror flick. Dmitri Diatchenko provides an "extreme tour guide" character who is both appealing and slightly ominous; potential victims played by Jonathan Sadowski, Jesse McCartney, and Nathan Phillips have more depth than usual, and even the pretty girls (here played by Devin Kelly, Olivia Dudley, and Ingrid Berdal) have a bit more screen presence than most horror flick ladies. It's a good thing director Bradley Parker has a decent cast, because they're asked to rattle off some of the most basic lines and tired thriller conventions in years. (Early on we learn that one of the guys plans to propose marriage to one of the gals. Dear lord, could someone retire this flimsy screenwriting device already?)
But for all its familiar ideas, characters, and scares, Chernobyl Diaries earns points on restraint, mood, and something that real estate agents know all about: location, location, location. Basically we have a generic horror story, told just well enough (and with just a dash of mystery, which is always nice), by appealing actors in a resoundingly ominous locale. So while it's highly unlikely to appeal to audiences and critics like Peli's Paranormal Activity did, it's safe to say that Chernobyl Diaries should fit the bill well enough if you want to plop down on your couch, kill the lights, and enjoy a casual crescendo of creepiness that doesn't reinvent the wheel, but gives it a decent spin all the same.