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"Chernobyl Diaries" doesn't exactly dote on story, so in that spirit of austerity, here it is in one sentence. Six tourists take a ride out to the Ukrainian town that was instantly abandoned when Chernobyl exploded in 1986 and then all sorts of awful things happen to them. None of the characters have last names, which hints strongly that the writers — chief among them, Oren Peli, the father of the "Paranormal Activity" movies — never conceived of them as real people. All they needed were some dupes who could be dropped into a remote, desperate setting to be tormented and killed one by one. What results is exactly the sort of horror movie that people refer to when they say they hate horror movies: cheap, loud, dark, cruel and dumb. In all, it could be better.
At least it got the setting right, and in a fright flick, that goes a long way. The tourists — four Americans plus an Aussie and a Norwegian backpacking — are driven out to the town of Prypiat by a thick-necked ex-military "extreme tour" operator (Dimitri Diatchenko). Guards turn them away from one checkpoint into the town (because of "maintenance," the guide explains, which sounds odd to everyone expecting to drive into a deserted town), so he finds a back-road entrance. Apparently the movie was filmed in Serbia and Hungary, but the likeness to recent photos out of Prypiat (a terrific single-word search to undertake on Google Images) is truly unnerving, down to the Brutalist concrete buildings and the desiccated Ferris wheel. Even after the credits roll on the suitably insipid and lazy ending of "Chernobyl Diaries," the deserted town, with its stink of desertion porn, will linger in the imagination.
Prypiat was the company town for the Chernobyl power plant that suffered a reactor explosion and then Febreezed the entire planet with radiation. Today it's safe enough to serve as a real, active tourism site, so the haunted ghost-town premise is a bit of a reach. All seems manageably macabre for our tourists until they find their van disabled, and have to spend the night amid packs of feral dogs and some other menace in the dark that turns out to be people, or radiation zombies, or something. One of the hazards of riding shotgun in a Peli movie is that backstory — that is to say, a coherent rationale that drives the events of the film — doesn't interest him as much as what happens on screen at any given moment. Hence the action, and the moments of kidney-churning fright, that "Chernobyl Diaries" serves up never evolve. The scares stop at the autonomic, as the tourists are stalked and attacked and maybe eaten or something through a series of dark buildings and hallways and tunnels. If your goal is to scare audiences, yes, putting your protagonists into confined, dark spaces and sending something to get them is a fine way to accomplish that. This is a film in which you'll yell at the characters for doing stupid things, but doesn't give them any plausible options for you to suggest.
We could debate the existence of the supernatural until the Second Coming. Radiation poisoning carries no such question. While we watch Fukushima burn, and when we look at old nuclear test videos from the American West, we realize how fertile a ground radiation becomes, a semi-scientific stand-in for fairy tale horrors. The ghoulish cannibals in "The Hills Have Eyes" seem scarier because they seem more plausible than zombies and more familiar — they were just hicks in the wrong zip code during the Trinity tests. The very title of "Chernobyl Diaries" suggests the lives snuffed and disrupted when the eponymous reactor went nuclear. Too bad the writing and direction don't follow suit.