Early on in "Chernobyl Diaries," an ill-fated tour group talks about heading off to see the abandoned ruins of Pripyat – a town within spitting distance of the infamous nuclear reactor – with the same jittery glee that most kids would use for a trip to Six Flags. Yeah, families had to be evacuated, never to return, and many people tragically died of radiation-related cancers, but for these adventurers, that just adds to the excitement.
The notion of turning tragedy into tourism, combined with some suspense and a few solid scares, could have made for an above average horror thriller. Instead, we got "Chernobyl Diaries."
After spending a day taking photos in the ruined city, the seven explorers (including Jesse McCartney – yes, the former pop star) find their van sabotaged and themselves stuck in the not-so-abandoned town with vicious dogs and some shadowy figures with an apparent hatred for visitors. In case the murderous inhabitants weren't enough, there's also the lingering presence of radiation threatening to melt their faces off.
The concept, the brainchild of "Paranormal Activity" creator Oren Peli, has promise. The idea of an invisible and unavoidable substance slowly killing you from the inside has potential for suspense, and the location, a combination of "Hostel"'s fear of being in a foreign land and "The Hills Have Eyes"' nuclear wasteland trapped in time, seems ideal for creepy imagery.
As the protagonists descend further into the town, however, "Chernobyl Diaries" equally descends in quality. The characters turn into classic horror movie idiots midway through the film, choosing to go down every dark corridor and refusing to believe their friends are dead despite the blood smears on the ground. The often-wooden acting doesn't help disguise their dumb decision-making skills.
Even with the characters acting like they left their brain stems back in America, the biggest problems come from first-time director Brad Parker. Unlike Peli's "Paranormal Activity" series, "Chernobyl Diaries" is a straightforward narrative. However, Parker directs the action like a found footage horror film, endlessly moving the camera around the characters and shakily following them from place to place.
In the beginning, Parker's handheld techniques are just distracting as he switches between polished and shaky found footage shots. Half of "Chernobyl Diaries" looks like it was directed by a professional crew, and the other half by a character in the movie that no one wanted to talk to. Unfortunately, as the film goes on and the action gets more chaotic, the unsure direction becomes disorienting. It gets difficult to see what is going on, where the characters are going and which characters are even still alive (not that you'll care).
These directorial faux pas, combined with the stupid characters and over-reliance on jump scares, result in a film that won't frighten anyone besides the Ukrainian Board of Tourism.