by Glenn Lovell
How can you not buy into an off-the-beaten-path excursion following these words of assurance? When asked if the advertised trip to the irradiated Ukrainian town of Pripyat comes with a AAA seal of approval, beefy tour guide Uri answers in thick Slavic accent, “Of course it’s safe. This is not ‒ how do you say? ‒ my first rodeo.”
Later, checking his Geiger counter, Uri reminds the nervous foreigners that those dormant power-plant stacks in the distance go by the name Chernobyl. But that’s OK, he adds. “We’re only here for a short time.”
Yeah, sure. And Hansel and Gretel were back by din-din after a brisk Sunday stroll.
In keeping with some of the best “Wrong Turn” chillers of recent vintage, the dimwit wayfarers in “Chernobyl Diaries” break every rule known to horrordom and are, therefore, ripe for catastrophe. They ignore their better instincts and repeatedly say yes when no makes more sense. They back into cramped, pitch-black spaces, shoulders tantalizingly exposed. They split up at the worst possible moments. They “escape” by racing down, down, down, ever farther into the bowels of a concrete bunker.
Produced and co-written by “Paranormal Activity’s” Oren Peli and serviceably directed by first-timer Brad Parker, who did special effects on “Let Me In” and “Lake Placid,” this new fright entry opens like a cross between “Hostel” and half-a-dozen found-footage thrillers. But then it plays its trump card. Four Americans in Kiev are talked into an “extreme tourist” package by ex-Special Forces soldier Uri (Dimitri Diatchenko). Fast-talker Paul (Jonathan Sadowski) is an easy mark; Amanda has reservations but likes the photo ops; Chris (Jesse McCartney), Paul’s brother, and girlfriend Natalie (Olivia Dudley) think the whole thing “sketchy” but are eventually overruled. At the last minute, Uri and the Yanks are joined by a pair of Aussie-Norwegian newlyweds (Nathan Phillips and Ingrid Bosø Berdal) ‒ making it an unlucky seven.
Like the roadkill armadillo at the start of “Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” there are many ominous signs that shout “Turn tail, idiots, and run!” The first are checkpoint guards who say the place is closed “for maintenance.” To come: mutant fish, feral dogs and, my favorite, something big and furry that explodes from the shadows. While Peli and Parker run out of story and victims all too soon, they’re to be congratulated for the ultra-grim locations (abandoned housing blocks and power plant in Serbia) and for sustaining a palpable sense of dread. The latter comes from keeping the main menace sketchy (in the best sense) until the “REC”-inspired ending. It’s amazing what you can accomplish with a blurry figure crossing the top of the frame … when everyone’s back is conveniently turned.
CHERNOBYL DIARIES ✮✮ With Devin Kelley, Jonathan Sadowski, Jesse McCartney, Olivia Dudley, Dimitri Diatchenko. Directed by Brad Parker; scripted by Oren Peli, Carey and Shane Van Dyke. 90 min. Rated R (for profanity, shock moments, grisly makeup effects)