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Horror? This is Not Horror: Chernobyl Diaries

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Film | May 25, 2012 |

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Film | May 25, 2012 |

Well that was the dumbest movie I’ve seen this year. I suppose I should be more eloquent, but it’s hard to summon up the willpower to really rip apart something that the filmmakers didn’t bother putting all that much effort into in the first place. Chernobyl Diaries is simply lazy filmmaking.

Chernobyl Diaries makes essentially every standard mistake of bad horror films. First, we’re introduced to our group of idiot characters, each simply having variations of “obnoxious jackass” as their personality. Then they go on the obligatory non-standard special tour with some local they just met. When the guards won’t let them into Pripiat, he goes off road and takes a short cut in. Their car breaks down/gets sabotaged/has wires eaten by radioactive squirrels and then they’re stranded and no one knows that they’re there. Cue up sixty minutes of running around nonsensically with a grand total of a dozen or so jump scares, and they call that a film. I think there was what you might call a twist at the end, but it’s hard to diagnose as particularly twisty since by that point the viewer is completely indifferent to what’s happening on the screen.

See the hilarious thing is that absolutely no injuries are inflicted by the supposed monsters. A pack of dogs mauls a couple of the morons, and some grody piranha mutants take a bite out of one guy, though that wound is so minor that you’ve done worse to yourself playing basketball. Let’s not be cavalier about the pack of wild dogs though. Those are a real problem in parts of Russia (though this film is set in the Ukraine), though I never saw any actually hurling themselves against the windows of a van Cujo style. Hell, the wild street dogs in Saint Petersburg were actually adorable, they’d roll over in the middle of the sidewalk and let kids rub their bellies. But they weren’t radioactive so I guess that’s the difference.

The only thing the evil mutants ever actually do on camera is GRAB you suddenly. I capitalized that word because capslock is the jump scare of writing for the web. One character (we’ll call her blonde idiot, because that is the sum total of her characterization) is suddenly grabbed and dragged off screen by shadowy figures on no less than three different occasions. That she keeps getting discovered wandering around screaming ten minutes later with no apparent wounds is actually the height of unintentional hilarity. Of course she is so totally disturbed that she can’t form words while the group starts running frantically in another direction as loudly as possible with flashlights bouncing all over the place, otherwise she might be able to explain that all they did was cuddle her for a while.

Also, and I know this is an absurd complaint to make, but there are no diaries. Nothing is told in first person, no flashbacks, no story time. The title sounded cool so they called it that, which ought to fall afoul some sort of truth-in-advertising law since the only appropriate titles would be something along the lines of Chernobyl Meh.

The only bright side to the entire film is that since no one bothered converting it to 3D, you’re only angry at losing $8 instead of $12.

It’s a real shame too, because the basic premise of a horror (or any genre really) film set in Pripiat, the abandoned town within line of sight of the Chernobyl reactor complex, is a fantastic idea. The situation has been written about at length, and the photos online (seriously, just google image search for Pripiat) are simply astounding. The famous ferris wheel, the soccer field erupting into a forest of fifty foot trees, concrete crumbling as trees take root and grow on the roofs of ten story buildings. Radiation turning people into killer goblins? Give me a break, you rank amateurs. That’s the horror of childhood, of things going bump in the night. But to an adult, to a mind with experience, that’s hardly true horror. Things trying to kill you at least validate the relevance of your existence. True horror is in the abyss, in the realization of the complete indifference of the universe to whether you have ever existed at all. And that’s the horror story that could be told in Pripiat.

The invisible release of pure death. An entire town of fifty thousand people fleeing simultaneously, all belongings abandoned, meals left half eaten, books dropped mid sentence. Volunteers climbing onto the hot reactor, hand shoveling soil onto the complex, knowing that they themselves will be dead in days, but desperately trying to temper the murder blazing silently from beneath their feet, to give their families and friends a precious few more seconds to reach safety. The largest ghost town in the world for a quarter century, overgrown and reclaimed by nature, with the low shouldered reactors still slouching in the distance.

The abandoned city is a haunted warning to our species, that this universe does not give a damn if we destroy ourselves, that we could launch everything we had to pummel to ashes ten thousand years of civilization, and the end result would be the slow creep of the forests swallowing our ruins within a generation. The horror of Chernobyl is its enduring testament to our own insignificance.

Oh yeah, but mutants are scary too.

Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at You can email him here.

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Steven Lloyd Wilson is the sci-fi and history editor. You can email him here or follow him on Twitter.