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Chernobyl Diaries and the state of horror

Everything that's wrong with modern horror is right here in 'Chernobyl Diaries.'

Chernobyl Diaries opened on UK screens recently with not so much a nuclear blast as an exasperated sigh. Rarely has a film so perfectly encapsulated everything that’s wrong with modern horror films. The man behind Paranormal Activity, Oren Peli, produces and co-writes this “film,” in which a group of “people” go to Chernobyl for some idiot-tourism, where nothing exciting happens. If you’re wondering what Chernobyl is then don’t worry, it’s explained in the movie with the line “Chernobyl? Isn’t that that place where that thing happened?” Or something.

It’s the embodiment of the current state of horror. It’s been beautifully exposed by films like The Cabin in the Woods, Scream, Scream 2 and Scre4m, but not so much Scream 3. They so thoroughly (and lovingly) tore apart the modern horror film that you’d think that no one would be so stupid as to keep on churning out such generic, lifeless, cut-and-paste movies. But Oren Peli is that stupid.

Here’s a five-point checklist for those template-fitting horror films:

No characters — Instead, we get good looking people. Please take note, Oren Peli: Attractiveness is not a character trait. Just look at attractive people and you’ll see what I mean. These beautiful people are indistinguishable, like they’ve been built in the same factory, which would actually be such a good twist that it would never happen in one of these films. In Chernobyl Diaries, they don’t even fit the Cabin in the Woods (spoiler alert … seriously, The Cabin in the Woods is so twisty that the following two words could end up ruining the whole thing) character moulds, because that would be too clever for Oren Peli. Perhaps I’m being unfair; you can distinguish them slightly because one of them is blonde, one is brunette (or possibly blonde), one is something else and the other is a shade known as “worst film ever” brown. As a result of this utter lack of characters, the audience doesn’t care what happens to any of them. They’re too boring to even provoke a thrill from watching them die, as in something like Friday the 13th. Watching them run around is like watching your computer mouse cursor slowly crawl from one side of the screen to the other, only more dull.

No horror films exist  — The beauty of the Scream films is that the characters have seen horror films. In films like Chernobyl Diaries they act as if nothing bad has ever happened ever; “Shall we go to Chernobyl and rub up against the reactors?” “Sounds like a great idea! I’ll pack my bag full of no stuff.” The way in which most horror films exist in a world without horror films can be acceptable, depending on the quality of the film. For instance, The Descent is one of the best modern horror films, despite the premise that these people would be idiotic enough to go into this big dark hole in the first place. It gets away with that, because the film itself is brilliantly claustrophobic and scary. Chernobyl Diaries, meanwhile, cannot be excused for its stupid premise, because it’s a stupid film.

Functional dialogue — The reason there are no characters is because no one says anything that people actually say in real life and we learn nothing about their personalities. The dialogue is purely to get us from the beginning to the end, and in the case of Chernobyl Diaries, it still takes too long. Everyone just says what they see, like a child; “It’s a guard!” “It’s a poorly conceived plot point!” “I have no signal!” That last one is now in practically every horror film to get round the issue of simply phoning for help. Either that or it is actually written by an electronic device, which would make sense were it not for Oren Peli’s writing which is too stupid to be written by any machine. It’s no wonder there’s nothing to these characters, when they just say things and expect us to go along with it, despite none of them actually doing anything. We know that one guy loves his girlfriend, because he insists on saying it every five minutes. Repeatedly saying something will make the audience believe it, right? Wrong, Oren Peli. We need to see people do things and therein lies the character. Perhaps the problem is that in real life, Oren Peli does speak like that. It would explain a lot, and his pitch meetings would be unbearable; “It’s a film! Chernobyl! Look!” It also seems likely that he’s never heard how humans speak, which would explain his ignoring everyone who suggested good ideas for the film.

Jump scares — I watched Jaws for the first time a few days ago (I know, I’m stupid for not having seen it sooner. But not as stupid as Oren Peli), which is a little known film from a guy called Steven Spielberg, I don’t know what happened to him … Anyway, Jaws has some of the best jump moments I’ve ever seen. With that still fresh in my memory, I sat perfectly still through the duration of Chernobyl Diaries, except for some bored shifting in my seat, almost getting up to leave, and at one point stabbing myself in the leg to alleviate the crushing tedium of it all. Every time the camera lingered for ages, accompanied by eerie music or silence, it’s obvious that something’s about to jump out, accompanied by a loud noise. What is the point, Oren Peli, of a jump scare that we know is going to happen? The beauty of the jump shocks in Jaws is that we don’t see them coming, they’re used extremely sparingly (see previous point re not seeing them coming) and what then jumps out is, and pay close attention here Oren Peli, scary. Something along the lines of a big shark. The Chernobyl Diaries would-be jumps happen every few seconds, and are obviously disappointing. It’s almost as if the film didn’t have any ideas …

Boring — Sorry for any repetition here, but Chernobyl Diaries is so unbelievably and unrelentingly boring. “Mind-numbing” seems too generous, so here’s some things that you could try which are less boring than watching this film: Sitting down for 86 minutes; counting all the books in a reference library as big as Brazil; being dead. Because these films are all the same, they’re completely predictable, as if a computer had taken a modern horror template and just filled in a few words like “Chernobyl.” Except it’s even worse than that, because again, it’s not written by a computer, but by stupid Oren Peli. There’s no atmosphere; these filmmakers tend to think that making everything dark to the point of invisibility with generic “creepy” music is tense and atmospheric. In reality, it just looks exactly like every other modern horror film, and has no effect other than sending you to sleep due to the darkness and dull music and sheer tedium. Nothing exciting or interesting happens in Chernobyl Diaries, and you’d have thought that Chernobyl would be a decent setting for some horror fun. Who could ruin a set-up like that? Well … ok, I won’t say it. Actually I will; Oren Peli. In fairness to the stupid man, he didn’t direct it; that was Bradley Parker, but it’s his first film, having been in visual effects for movies including Fight Club, so he should probably have done the effects for this because they look poor. It’s clear that all the creative reigns were firmly in the stupid hands of Oren Peli, because it’s really, really stupid. The “characters” even die in order; here come some spoilers, but you weren’t going to see it anyway because you’re not the idiot that Oren Peli thinks you are. First the boyfriend dies, and his girlfriend is distraught, but just in case there was a chance of any tension in the film, she them promptly dies too, completely obliterating any potential emotion. Then another man dies, followed by … his distressed girlfriend, because we don’t want a stupid little heartbroken girl running around with her silly emotions, do we Oren “Stupid” Peli? People complain about torture porn, but at least Saw once had something at least slightly interesting about it. Chernobyl Diaries has literally nothing. You might be thinking, “Well at least there’d be some cool monsters running around Chernobyl, surely?” No of course not, haven’t you been reading all this? The creatures are probably the most boring thing of all, making you wish you were watching the end of The Cabin in the Woods, or were just lying in a hole somewhere waiting for the worms to nibble you to death.

There is still hope for horror; recent films like Kill List and Juan of the Dead prove that horror can still be clever and brutal and funny and satirical and scary. As usual the problem lies with Hollywood, and it’s time to just leave films like Chernobyl Diaries behind, because they treat their audience with total contempt to a frankly offensive and insulting degree. Horror fans are people too; we’re just people who like watching others getting axes in their faces and finding heads in their fridges.

Oren Peli is stupid.



Photo Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures

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One Response to “Chernobyl Diaries and the state of horror”

June 23, 2012 at 9:54 PM

Man, I was so psyched to see this one too… just the setting alone is creepy, but I’m with you on how US Hollywood horror just loves to put 5 or 6 great looking people, usually with a mouth of super white porcelain veneers, big fake boobed, plastic, bland, generic, and cut from the same bad acting cloth, and use the same dumb loud bang formula with every movie. European horror on the other hand has been churning out some of the best anti-hollywood horror movies in recent years. If you can tolerate subtitles (which don’t bother me) the movies are usually beautifully shot, directed, great lighting and shadows for creepiness, better dialog, better scores, actually great scores, and all with REAL actors that can act. Even the children act really well. You get buck teeth, some bad skin, dirty fingernails, and unusual faces. I really enjoy the new crop of euro-horror. They are just better film makers. They get it. Unfortunately here in the US they sometimes dub the films with the same crappy hollywood B actors that do US horror movies and they kill the movie. So in my experience always search out the original subtitled ones. The US is still in the torture porn mode trying to pass it off as horror, where as Eurohorror are getting back into the supernatural and just plain weird…found footage is a real cop out too. I’m sick of the 40K movie. It’s time for Hollywood to reset, and reboot the genre.

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