What are the three creepiest places on earth? I’d have to go with La Isla de Munecas (look it up if you don’t want to sleep tonight), Poveglia (ditto), and Prypiat. Prypiat, the Ukrainian town abandoned when the Chernobyl reactor blew in 1986 is absolutely one of the creepiest places ever.
At the risk of pointing out the obvious, if you’re making a movie set in Chernobyl, Chernobyl should be a character in and of itself. They couldn’t film in Prypiat, because Prypiat is still contaminated. You can go there with the proper permits, but even the company that runs tours recommends you go in with a Geiger counter, protective suit, and “clothes that fully cover your body.” So while I support director Oren Peli’s decision not to give the cast and crew cancer, there are still plenty of places out there that could be made Prypiat-esque with a little window dressing.
I went into this movie expecting a slow burn, a movie that captured, at least a little bit, the pervading sense of tragedy and loss that surrounds the Chernobyl disaster. An eerie movie that melds the reality of Prypiat with fiction. A movie that’s creepy. Chernobyl Diaries is not creepy and it’s definitely not scary. Without giving away who/what is supposed to be scary in Chernobyl Diaries, I’ll sum up the plot.
Chernobyl Diaries centers around a group of kids cavorting through Europe who make a pit stop in Kiev to visit one guy’s brother. None of these characters are likable, and not one has the sense to say “eff that” when the brother gets the brilliant ideal to check out Chernobyl with the totally-not-sketchy tour guide, Yuri. So, our intrepid band of morons set off on a magical mystery tour of Prypiat.
The first scare has four legs. Assuming you don’t have a deathly fear of dogs (and even if you do), which one of these would you least want to encounter while walking through Chernobyl?
Yeah. Bear in mind that there is an active wolf population in Chernobyl. And Peli could have gone with scraggly wolves, with mutant wolves, hell, with glow in the dark wolves. Anything made of wolf would have gone over a lot better than remarkably healthy and cute dogs. Or if the wolf budget was that low, throw a little mud on the pooches. Make them scruffy and scary and mangy. The kind of dog you’d expect to encounter while day tripping through Prypiat.
Once the “real” scares start you can’t tell what’s going on. Not in the “holy crap what IS it?!” way, but in the Mr. Magoo way. Pictures speak a thousand words so here are two screencaps from my DVD:
Few scenes are shot in daylight, completely squandering opportunities to set a really creepy trapped-in-a-desolate-and-radioactive-ghost town mood. The rest of the movie plays out with all the ambiance of midnight in Antarctica during a lunar eclipse. Most scenes are obliterated by either near-total darkness or an actor shining the flashlight directly into the camera, much like a cop at a traffic stop.
Oh, Chernobyl Diaries, I wanted to like you. I so, so wanted to like you. I would have liked you if you were mediocre, even. The final scare provides a meh ending to a sub-meh movie. So if you have the hankering for a creepy abandoned place movie, go watch the superior Session 9 while you wait patiently with me for someone to make a Chernobyl movie that’s actually frightening.