Overnight success Oren Peli is now a very busy man. Since writing and directing Paranormal Activity, the sleeper hit of 2009, he’s written and directed the upcoming Area 51, co-created a TV series (The River), produced or co-produced several features including two Paranormal sequels (a third is in development) and James Wan’s Insidious, and this week, we find him co-producing and sharing writing credit (with Carey and Shane Van Dyke) on the newly released The Chernobyl Diaries. To which one can only respond by asking: It took three people to write The Chernobyl Diaries?
No, no… well, yes, but also: Does the kid really have the goods? Or would he have been better off fading into obscurity as a one-hit wonder? Is he next Sam Raimi or the next those-guys-who-did-Blair-Witch-Project? Does Chernobyl deliver more of the magic, or has Oren become borin’? (Sorry.)
Easily resolved. To the Smackdown mat we go, with the new film and the one that put him on the map!
Paul (Jonathan Sadowski, Shit My Dad Says), now living in Kiev for some reason, is visited by his brother Chris, Chris’ girlfriend Natalie and her friend Amanda (Jesse McCartney, Olivia Dudley and Devin Kelley, all looking to make big-screen impressions). The group are about to depart for Moscow when they impulsively decide for some reason to take creepy “extreme tour guide” Uri (Dimitri Diatchenko) up on his offer of a fun-filled day of roaming around Pripyat, a town abandoned since the Chernobyl disaster. They are joined by another couple, an Australian guy and a Norwegian girl, which is pretty much all we learn about them.
The group soon gets more than they bargained for when the town turns out to be not so much “abandoned” as “infested with ravenous bald mutants.” Or zombies. Or something. And really mean dogs. Or something. You don’t really get a clear look at anything, so your guess is as good as mine.
The success of the micro-budget Paranormal Activity instantly resurrected the “found footage” horror genre, giving it a fresh twist by setting all the action in the apparently haunted home of young lovers Katie and Micah (Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat). Katie is convinced that some sort of demon from her childhood has followed her there, and the skeptical Micah decides to nip the problem in the bud by capturing their every moment on video, including while they sleep.
The result (edited together by… the demon, I guess?) is a mix of the usual jiggly, hand-held action and long, static security-cam shots that provide the film’s most unsettling moments. The bumps in the night become increasingly volatile; Katie starts acting really weird; the parapsychologist gets so wigged out he refuses to even investigate; and then suddenly and without warning… wham! — a lucrative franchise is born.
Chernobyl Diaries, despite the (inexplicable) title, is actually not an entry in the “found footage” genre. It’s just a straightforward narrative about a group of twenty-somethings fending off monsters and getting gradually eliminated. Which is to say that it’s pretty familiar stuff, the sort of movie that this year’s terrific Cabin in the Woods deconstructed, spoofed and basically demolished. Its most impressive aspect is how hard the actors have to work to convince us that anyone in the universe would actually want to go to Pripyat in the first place. A hulking stranger with a van taking us to an abandoned town that suffered a nuclear disaster three decades ago? We’re so there! What’s the supposed fascination with this town? One typically dense character remarks, “It really is as if nature completely took over.” Uh, yeah, exactly like that, except for the part where the man-made radiation killed everything “natural” there.
So the two films differ greatly in style, and even more so in light of the fact that only one of them isn’t incredibly stupid. Paranormal was good spooky fun. Its characters were fairly likable and smart, the improvised-feeling dialogue lent it an air of authenticity, and their reactions to the situation were unusually believable for the genre. It was also refreshing in the type of scares it went for, largely eschewing the usual “Boo!” moments for far more subtle, willies-inducing ones, like a simple shot of Katie getting up in the middle of the night, standing and staring blankly down at Micah, immobile, the time-code on the camera rapidly fast-forwarding to show the hours passing.
Chernobyl, on the other hand, doesn’t know from subtle. Its characters are one-dimensional dopes; the dialogue is thuddingly flat and on-the-nose (Drinking game idea: “We’ve gotta get out of here!” = Do a shot); the plot doesn’t have a fresh idea in its empty head; and as for the monsters… that’s actually the weirdest part. It’s the directing debut of Bradley Parker, a former visual effects supervisor on many horror flicks, so you’d think that’s the one area where the movie would shine, but in fact, it goes out of its way to disappoint there. We get, I swear, not a single good look at any of the mutants. They seem to be a bunch of chrome-dome dudes, so maybe they’re rejects from The Hills Have Eyes, or a bunch of Vic Mackey wannabes (from an open call for The Shield), but whatever they are, they eat people… Check that — maybe not; it’s never really shown what they do once they catch somebody, and every time they did, I was too pleased that we were that much closer to the end to care.
Paranormal’s biggest flaw was its ending, which I found too abrupt and overly literal. Chernobyl’s ending is flawed as well, but mainly in the sense that it couldn’t have come soon enough.
Oh, the horror! Oh, the carnage!
What a disgusting, bloody mess the champion has made of the challenger! Stop the fight, already!
Needless to say, it’s an easy call this week. Paranormal Activity and even its sequels (which are both watchable, if a bit formulaic at this point) are sheer masterpieces compared to the disposable, derivative and downright idiotic Chernobyl Diaries. I’ll withhold final verdict on Oren Peli until Area 51, but if there’s any truth to the maxim that you’re only as good as the last thing you did, right now he’s ranking just ahead of this year’s execrable The Devil Inside. Talk about frightening…