The main goal of the horror genre might be to frighten, but the majority of scary moves are won and lost in the first twenty minutes. Without an effective lead-in, it really doesn’t matter what might appear later. Fear is relative. If viewers don’t give a shit about the men and women being terrorized, the things that go bump in the night never seem to bump very hard. Scary movies die a slow death when they merely turn audience members into casual observers. Luckily for Chernobyl Diaries, the idea cuts the other way too.
Here we have a movie that basically doesn’t do a single thing overly well. None of it is bad, mind you. It’s all just mediocre. The villains aren’t particularly original or horrifying. The dialogue isn’t overly careful or delicate. The scenery, while cool, never quite maximizes its potential. None of it would ever be considered for inclusion in a how-to guide, but somehow, through good acting and wonderful chemistry between the actors, Chernobyl Diaries wins the first twenty minutes. Consequently, the bumps feel a little bumpier, the creatures a bit more menacing and the payoff genuinely earned.
That believable and interesting chemistry starts with Chris (Jesse McCartney) and Paul (Jonathan Sadowski). The latter lives in Kiev and invites his younger brother, his girlfriend Amanda (Devin Kelley) and her best friend Natalie (Olivia Dudley) out to tour Europe. Their home movies pace the first few scenes and end with a tour of Paul’s apartment. He’s beyond pumped to see his sibling and to celebrate, he lines up an extremely creepy and exciting tour.
The city of Prypiat housed the men and women who worked at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. When reactor number four exploded, all the residents were evacuated as quickly as possible, leaving a ghost town and years later, tourism opportunities. Paul lines up an ex-special forces operative named Uri (Dimitri Diatchenko) to lead the way, and along with two fellow travelers, they sneak in to see the city. The standard tour quickly devolves into the macabre. Cars break down, flashlights run out of batteries and creatures go bump in the night.
It’s a relatively standard horror movie survivor plot, but thanks to the momentum built by the first twenty minutes, Chernobyl Diaries is able to make the most out of its oh-shit moments and keep the pace hurried. Individually, none of the scares are noteworthy, but they happen often enough to keep up the adrenaline. Plus, the characters look at each other and interact with each other as we’d expect them to. Their personalities might not be wildly unusual or particularly fascinating, but the group dynamic and basic story arc work. The characters who would strike off on their own or attempt daring rescues do. The ones who would wait it out choose such a course. Their behavior doesn’t feel forced or out-of-place, it feels natural, which isn’t always a quality scary movies offer.
In ten years, it’s unlikely horror film aficionados will pull out Chernobyl Diaries very often. It doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but thanks to some good acting and a few scares, it turns it fast enough.