Chernobyl Diaries


Chernobyl Diaries

Out of the frying pan…

(2012) Horror (Warner Brothers) Devin Kelley, Jonathan Sadowski, Ingrid Bolsø Berdal, Olivia Taylor Dudley, Jesse McCartney, Nathan Phillips, Dimitri Diatchenko, Milos Timotijevic, Pasha D. Lychnikoff, Zinaida Dedakin, Ivana Milutinovic. Directed by Brad Parker

 

Some things are just downright bad ideas. Teasing the starving mother of bear cubs is one of them. Calling Mike Tyson a sissy is another. However, you’d pretty much have to put sightseeing at the sight of the worst nuclear accident in history right at the top of the list.

Chris (McCartney), his girlfriend Natalie (Dudley) and her good friend Amanda (Kelley) are touring Europe the way only young people can – like complete idiots. Relentlessly taping everything, acting like goofballs in front of the camera, they head into Kiev to visit Chris’ brother Paul (Sadowski) who has been estranged from his family for awhile. Paul shows them a good time, but the continuation of the tour to Moscow is interrupted when Paul meets an extreme tourism operator named Uri (Diatchenko) who proposes a trip to nearby Chernobyl.

Actually, the trip would be to Pripyat, the town near the plant where the plant workers and their families lived which became a deserted ghost town overnight when reactor #4 exploded on April 26, 1986, giving those who lived there no time to even collect their belongs. The town slumbered in radioactive peace for 25 years, the radiation too high to allow any sort of return until recently. The reactor itself is still highly contaminated and can only be approached in complete protective gear and even then only for a few hours at a time.

For Type A personality Paul, this sounds like his kind of adventure. Cautious Chris, who means to propose to Natalie in Moscow (can anyone say Lieutenant Deadmeat?) is reluctant to go but Paul convinces Amanda, who is a photographer, that she can get the shots of a lifetime in Pripyat so Amanda convinces Natalie at which point Chris caves.

At first it looks like the trip is over before it begins – the army has closed off the town and isn’t permitting Uri, who has conducted several tours there, into the town. However wily Uri knows a back way into town and drives the four Americans, along with Norwegian honeymooners Michael (Phillips) and Zoe (Berdal) into the deserted town.

Most of the vegetation is dead and they find a  mutated fish near a stream on the edge of town (had they stayed a little longer they might have seen a whole lot of ’em) but it’s the silence that’s eerie. No birds, few animal noises of any sort. There are feral dogs running around the area which can be dangerous if there’s a lot of them but nothing too dangerous (other than that big mofo bear that runs through one of the apartment buildings, scaring the bejeezus out of them). That is, until they return to their van and find out that the van won’t start – the leads on the starter have either melted or something is wrong with them – and neither Uri nor Michael can repair it. They call for help but nobody answers. It looks like they’ll have to spend the night in the van. And it soon becomes very apparent that they aren’t alone.

Oren Peli, who created the Paranormal Activity franchise, wrote and produced this (first time director Parker was behind the camera). There are several similar elements here; a microscopic budget (under a million, chump change for most Hollywood productions), unknown actors (unless you count pop star McCartney), a genuinely terrifying premise and shaky, hand-held cameras (at times the angles and shaky-cam perspective make this look kind of documentary-like). However, this isn’t nearly as scary as Peli’s previous film.

For one thing, none of the actors are really memorable, although McCartney bears a striking resemblance physically and also vocally to a young Leonardo di Caprio. Diatchenko also is strong and likable as Uri. The rest are mostly unremarkable but pretty competent.

I accept that for most horror movies to work, there has to be an instance of people doing dumb, stupid or irresponsible things and this film is no exception. I would not, for example, venture into the night from the safety of a closed and locked van armed only with a handgun to investigate strange noises when you are already aware that there’s a bear wandering around. You would definitely not do it if you had special forces survival training, which one of the characters supposedly had.

The monsters – you can pretty much figure out what they are – do not really act consistently which is another problem. In some instances they seem to be stalking the tourists with almost military precision. At other times they are mindless, shambling things out of a George A. Romero movie. We really only see them towards the end of the movie although we certainly know they’re there.

I liked parts of the movie and to be honest, with a little more care in the script, particularly in character development – if I can’t care about the characters, I have no emotional investment in their survival. In this case the audience become voyeurs at a Grand Guignol show and walk away merely feeling dirty instead of entertained, but thankfully there is sufficient entertainment value here. It could have used a lot more tension though – and a little less arguing.

REASONS TO GO: Terrific concept.

REASONS TO STAY: Inept script. Lacks real suspense.

FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of violence, a surfeit of bad language and some pretty graphic and gruesome images.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Oren Peli got the idea for the movie after seeing a photo blog of a girl riding through Pripyat on a motorcycle.  

CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/13/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 21% positive reviews. Metacritic: 31/100. The reviews are pretty much all negative.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: [Rec]

ANTHONY BOURDAIN LOVERS: During a recent episode set in the Ukraine of his “No Reservations” travel program, chef/author Bourdain was taken to Pripyat and saw the amusement rides and vacant apartment buildings. There were no mutants caught on camera for the show however.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Mr. Popper’s Penguins

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Paranormal Activity


Paranormal Activity

Things that go bump in the night.

(2009) Supernatural Horror (Paramount) Katie Featherston, Micah Sloat, Mark Friedrichs, Amber Armstrong, Ashley Palmer, Randy McDowell, James Piper, Crystal Cartwright.  Directed by Oren Peli

We think of haunted houses of being old Victorian mansions and Gothic monstrosities in fog-shrouded, rain-soaked streets with black cats and kudzu aplenty. However, paranormal activity can occur even in the most innocuous of settings.

Katie (Featherston) and Micah (Sloat) have been together for a few years now and have taken the big step of moving in together, into a beautiful suburban San Diego home. He’s a day trader and a pretty typical modern 20-something guy. She’s an English student and a pretty typical modern 20-something gal. They have high hopes for the future.

Then strange things begin to happen. Doors open and shut of their own accord. Things fall off of shelves. They are awakened by loud bangs in the night. Micah, however, being a pretty typical modern 20-something guy, has a major league digital video rig. He determines to film the goings on in the house; this becomes something of an obsession with him. As things escalate, Katie grows more terrified (she’s had experience with paranormal events in her past), Micah grows more determined and the strain begins to show on the couple. The question is: what does this entity want?

This is as successful a horror movie as you’re likely to see, both from a profit standpoint (see below) but also from an artistic standpoint as well. The movie has almost no budget and very few visual effects that aren’t practically generated. This is a found footage movie consisting entirely of Micah’s videotaping which can be both good and bad; it allows us to be privy to some very intimate moments for the couple (not the sexual kind) but also leads to long periods of really not much going on.

Fortunately, Featherston and Sloat have a natural chemistry together; they act and feel like a real couple, with Featherston getting exasperated with Sloat and Sloat being a guy about things. They argue, they kid each other and they show each other affection the way couples who have been together for awhile do. There are other actors here (such as Friedrichs as a paranormal expert) but it is Featherston who is onscreen for nearly every shot with Sloat being more often the voice of the guy holding the camera.

There are some genuine scares here but the movie goes for atmosphere more than anything else. The movie works because it generates a mood and relies on that to elevate the tension. The scares pop the balloon nicely, leaving us unbalanced for most of the film which is what a good horror movie is supposed to do.

The fact that the setting is so ordinary and mundane makes the film even creepier. It could be taking place in our own homes. And that ability to make it relatable is what makes the movie all the more effective. A lot has been made of the film’s very effective marketing campaign, the low budget and the big box office. All these things have tended to obscure the fact that this is a well-made horror movie that will keep you hooked until the very end. Now that the Saw franchise has come to an end, Halloween has a new franchise to look forward to.

WHY RENT THIS: One of the most effective “found footage” movies yet. Surprisingly good performances from unknowns Featherston and Sloat. Atmospheric and scary yet believable.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Starts out very slowly and there are a lot of stretches where nothing exciting happens..

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a lot of bad language and some really disturbing moments.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The entire movie was filmed in director Oren Peli’s home.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The Limited Edition comes with an unrated version with an alternative ending, a collectors card with a film cell on it and a limited edition t-shirt.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $193.3M on a $15,000 production budget; the movie was a blockbuster and maybe the most profitable movie ever on a budget under six figures.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Paranormal Activity 2

Insidious


Insidious

Rose Byrne and Patrick Wilson are skeptical this "breathing in the ear amplifier" will improve their sex lives.

(2011) Supernatural Horror (FilmDistrict) Patrick Wilson, Rose Byrne, Ty Simpkins, Barbara Hershey, Lyn Shaye, Andrew Astor, Leigh Whannell, Angus Sampson, Corbett Tuck, Heather Tocquigny, Ruben Pla, John Henry Binder, Joseph Bishara, Philip Friedman. Directed by James Wan

The things that happen to us when we sleep are mysterious, even with all the technology at our disposal. Nobody really knows what awaits us when we close our eyes.

At first glance things look pretty good for Josh Lambert (Wilson) and his wife Renai (Byrne) – pronounced “Renee” but spelled differently. They have just moved into a pretty spiffy old house. Josh works as a math teacher at the local high school – or is that college? We’re never really sure. I’m betting the latter because it’s a really spiffy house and Renai isn’t working. Well, she’s writing songs…but she’s also unpacking, taking care of two energetic young boys and a baby. Okay, she’s working harder than Josh is.

But there are some odd things going on. Things are being moved around. There are odd sounds that can be heard at night. Things disappear. Of course, some of it might be due to the chaos of moving. The sounds, well, it’s an old house, spiffy as it is.

Then things turn darker. Their eldest son Dalton (Simpkins) takes a tumble in the attic. At first glance, it doesn’t seem to be anything particularly serious; a little bump on the noggin. But he doesn’t wake up the next morning and nothing can rouse him from his slumber.

The doctors can’t explain it. His tumble didn’t produce any brain trauma. There’s no inflammation, no infection, nothing that would explain his coma, but he is most assuredly in one. After a few months of fruitless tests, the boy is sent home to lie in his own bed. A home nurse (Tuck) explains to Renai how to lubricate his feeding tube while Renai muses how the universe must be testing her to see how far she’ll bend before she breaks. It’s an honest moment but the universe isn’t done with her yet.

Things go from bad to worse. The paranormal activity in the house increases. Sinister figures are half-glimpsed and then fully seen. Things don’t just go bump in the night, they go CRASH BANG!!! Security alarms go off without reason, while the security company that installed them doesn’t respond.

So they do what any sensible family would do. They move. Josh’s mom Lorraine (Hershey) welcomes them to the neighborhood. Renai is relieved; at last the nightmare is over. But it’s not – it’s just beginning. The apparitions are showing up in the new place, more menacing and more solid than ever. At last, the couple in desperation calls a psychic that Lorraine recommends – Elise Rainier (Shaye). But before she shows up, she sends a couple of paranormal experts – Specs (Whannell) and Tucker (Sampson), who show up with elaborate homemade equipment. The looks on the face of Josh and Renai are pretty easy to read although they’re polite.

Then Elise herself shows up and makes the pronouncement that it isn’t the house that’s haunted, its Dalton. You see, apparently he astral projects at night while he’s asleep and like most young boys, he goes a little farther than he’s supposed to, ending up in a realm she calls The Further (yes, it’s capitalized). That’s where people go when they die. That’s where Dalton is. That’s where dear old dad has to go to fetch him (you see, Dalton inherited his skills). And Josh needs to do it fast; there are some real bad dudes out there who have plans for Dalton’s empty shell of a body.

The movie was written and directed by the team who did the same for the Saw series, and produced by the guy who directed Paranormal Activities, so the pedigree is good. Wan does a good job bringing out the chills and that all-important sense of dread that haunted house movies need to have in order to be successful.

He’s got a decent cast to work with. Wilson is most often cast as a baddie but here he plays a troubled father with a skeleton in his own closet (and yes, that’s pretty literal) who is weak in moments when he should be strong. That makes him a little bit more likable in an odd way – he’s like, normal and not some Hollywood superdad. Byrne’s best scenes come early after which she’s mostly supposed to scream, cry and beg. She can do hysterical as well as anybody can.

For my money, Shaye steals the show as the psychic who is something of a nod to Zelda Rubinstein in Poltergeist. She knows far more about the afterlife than anybody alive, and is able to reach into the other dimension and communicate. Like Rubinstein, she knows trouble when she sees it and is well aware the other side has some things in it that should stay there – not that they’ll stop trying to cross over at any opportunity mind you. Whannell (who wrote the script) and Sampson add much-appreciated comic relief, looking at magnetic fields through View Masters. Priceless, I tell you.

Now, despite the twist (which is given away in the trailer so I don’t have a problem revealing it here) that I thought could have really been a game-changer much the way the twist in The Sixth Sense was, the movie doesn’t really add too much to the genre. What happens is that Elise Rainier goes off to explain the Further in great detail, with a whole lot of paranormal technobabble until all you can do is throw your popcorn at the screen and yell “enough!” The movie would have worked better without the explanation and left the cast to work it out on their own. I also thought the sending of the dad in to fetch his son was a little too reminiscent of JoBeth Williams going into the closet to rescue the late Heather O’Rourke from the light – I half expected Wilson and Byrne to start calling “Carol Ann!” in reference to the character.

Even with all that, this is still a crackerjack of a horror flick. It scares you properly; none of these false scares or red herrings; they come right at you and put the horror right in your face where it’s supposed to be. There’s no overt gore (although there are certainly some disturbing images of dead things) and the movie is the better for it. The humans act like rational people other than a couple of slight miscues but still in all this is as good a horror movie as I’ve seen for awhile.

REASONS TO GO: Some very effective scares and a nice performance for Shaye. Some of the off-beat humor is very welcome.

REASONS TO STAY: Doesn’t really add too much to the haunted house genre and the twist is mostly a bunch of mumbo jumbo.

FAMILY VALUES: There are plenty of creepy images and big time scares, as well as some foul language. The overall theme that involves a child vulnerable to demonic possession might be way too much for small children.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first release from the new distribution company FilmDistrict.

HOME OR THEATER: While the big scary noises do enhance the movie and work best in a theater, the intimate nature of the movie is just fine at home.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Cold Souls