“Chernobyl Diaries” isn’t set in a lake house, a haunted mansion or other tell-tale horror movie landscapes.
For a good 30 minutes, that original touch is enough to make “Diaries” worth any horror hound’s time. You won’t even actively root for the pretty, youthful cast members to meet their maker. Too bad the film’s final moments abandon all those spooky vibrations for a cynical, ill-advised final shock.
A group of friends traveling through Russia spend some of their tourist dollars on an “extreme” tourist trek to a town near the Chernobyl power plant disaster. Their tour guide, Yuri (Dimitri Diathchenko), insists the radiation levels are harmless and there’s nothing to be frightened of around the facility.
Famous last words in any horror movie.
Good ol’ Yuri delivers on his promise, and his awkward interactions with the gang make for some welcome texture and conflict. Soon, the friends are investigating an abandoned tenement-style building as quiet as a morgue. Well, almost that quiet.
What follow is more or less what you expect from a land all but glowing with radiation. Still the stark nature of the surroundings and a nicely calibrated turn by Jonathan Sadowski as the blowhard with a gentle side let us invest in the streamlined story.
From there, the pleasures start to decay. Director Bradley Parker can go to the head of the class for creating a sense of claustrophobia even in the film’s not so confined spaces. His attempt to use “found footage” style camera tricks plays to the film’s advantage early on. Combined with the natural banter between the mates, the sense of realism impresses.
But what exactly is going on here? And do our heroes stand a Survivor Girl-style chance of fighting back?
The latter two questions result in shoddy answers, and the more the threat on the grounds increases, the less we care about the characters or the alleged mystery at hand.
The Blu-ray package comes with a goofy faux infomercial for Yuri’s Extreme Tours, a tongue in cheek exercise which might have helped the movie if that tone was fused to those flailing final minutes. An alternate ending, alas, is even less satisfying than how the actual movie wraps.
“Chernobyl Diaries” proves that simply placing a horror story in a fresh setting can give audiences a jolt. You still need a credible finale to make genre fans hungry for more.
Follow Christian Toto on Twitter @TotoMovies