Oren Peli’s Chernobyl Diaries, like Eli Roth’s increasingly vile Hostel series and Gideon Raff’s deeply offensive Train, has an interesting piece of liberal guilt at its heart: are films that explore ignorant fears and organ-jacking torture porn stereotypes of Eastern Europe horribly xenophobic in themselves, or are they merely reflecting the inherently xenophobic fears of the target audience?
One thing’s for sure, as low cost carriers continue to ‘open up’ (and other travel writing clichés) the unknown, there’s only going to be more films praying on our deep-seated fear of it.
Over the slowest opening ten minutes in cinema history, we’re introduced to a quartet of generically attractive American teens and their various personal dramas as they large it across Europe. Winding up in Kiev, they opt to take in the irradiated ghost town of Pripyat alongside two backpacking clichés and an obviously shifty and bullish Ukrainian tour guide (Dimitri Diatchenko), straight from the vodka shot book of ethnic caricatures.
Filmed in some unloved Communist-era industrial ruin in Serbia and Hungary, there’s some delicious crumble-porn on display and a sense of authenticity that’s frequently absent from movies purporting to be anywhere more exotic than Shitbucket, Idaho. Director Bradley Parker, second unit director on Let Me In and the Locke & Key pilot, ably guides the film through the expected trajectory – a few early, benign jump scares to set the tension levels. Then the ash cloud hits the turbine when they discover their van has been mysteriously sabotaged, and they’re forced to spend the night, during which they’re assaulted by wild dogs and mysterious figures.
Chernobyl Diaries is essentially The Hills Have Eyes with a faded colour palette, precious little subtext and even less excitement. The abandoned remains of Pripyat and the Chernobyl site itself become all-consuming, as our hapless travellers are snatched away one by one by ethereal figures, all grasping white hands and bald heads.
Any comparison ultimately makes this film seem far more remarkable than it is, though. Neither as outlandishly bad as it could be, nor as virulently xenophobic as expected, Chernobyl Diaries is simply very, very dull, with anonymous characters being chased around anonymous buildings by anonymous figures who do all their killing off screen. The faceless nature of the attackers, like the setting, while effective at first becomes a serious impediment to tension once the pace kicks off in earnest and our loud-mouth tourists are screaming and panicking about things we haven’t actually been shown.