Sunday, May 27, 2012

Review: Chernobyl Diaries

You know, there really needs to be a curve when it comes to grading horror movies, for two reasons: 1) there is huge dearth of truly good horror, and 2) horror fans are not looking for all the same things other movie fans are looking for.

I’ll start with the second point. There are some amazing horror movies out there, but there’s a reason those movies aren’t winning Oscars or getting perfect scores from Roger Ebert. A great horror movie doesn’t need deeply, perfectly developed characters or a never-before-seen storyline. Of course, it can have those things – Silence of the Lambs, for example, went far beyond superficial character development with Clarice Starling and the plot was definitely unique (to say the least). It was one of the few horror movies to win Best Picture at the Oscars. It’s an amazing, scary, psychological, thrilling film, and one of my favorites. But the fact is that it’s not the scariest horror movie I’ve ever seen; it’s not even close.

What are some of the scariest movies I’ve ever seen? The Strangers. The Ring. The Descent. And what do all of these movies have in common? Minimal character development, high suspense. Honestly, when I’m in the mood to be scared shitless, I don’t care very much about the characters’ inner lives and hopes and dreams. Of course I need to get to know them enough to care about them, but as soon as I have that hook, the thing that makes me want to see them get out alive, then I’m ready to move right along to the scares. Almost all horror films follow a basic formula to some extent, and some of the best horror films work hard to evoke that old, tried-and-true formula. It’s not a formula that’s conducive to winning Oscars, but it’s a formula that can really work when done right.

Then there’s the other thing – there are fewer and fewer really great horror movies. Like all other Hollywood genres, the horror film is suffering due to a lack of imagination and an overabundance of remakes. Accordingly, the horror fan has been forced to adjust her expectations. Which is not to say that I can’t recognize a terrible horror movie when I see one (for example, the recent Nightmare on Elm Street remake was inexcusable, and no grading curve in the world could save it from failing abysmally), but I have learned to enjoy the simpler pleasures of the adequate horror film. I’m still constantly on the prowl for the perfect horror (which I actually stumbled upon in the wonderful The Cabin in the Woods just a month or so ago – see, they do exist and that’s why we horror lovers continue to search), but I’m also willing to accept a movie that gives me sufficient thrills and chills without being particularly spectacular.

All of this is to say that I’m annoyed that The Chernobyl Diaries has a rating of 25% on Rotten Tomatoes (especially when the abysmal Paranormal Activity 2 holds a steady 59%). While I usually agree with Rotten Tomatoes' assessments, I find this one incredibly misleading. No, this movie doesn’t reinvent the horror genre, but as this excellent review (from a horror fan website, natch) says, it’s “a fun take on familiar tropes.” Yes, we’ve seen it all before: seemingly mentally-challenged characters go to a stupidly dangerous locale in search of “adventure” only to find, duh, they’re in a stupidly dangerous locale that they’re ill-equipped to handle. They wander dark stairwells and begin dropping off like flies; panicky decisions ensue. It’s all been done before.

And yet The Chernobyl Diaries manages to infuse some real excitement into the whole endeavor. After the characters find themselves stranded in Chernobyl through mysterious circumstances (aside from the stupidity it took to bring them there in the first place), the film takes off at a hurtling pace and it hardly lets up until the closing credits. The scares mainly rely on pop-outs and loud music, and it would be great if there was more to it than that, but it’s also acceptable that there’s not. I was also pleasantly surprised to discover that it was not yet another bogus “found footage” movie, a subgenre that I think is more than worn out already. As is, Chernobyl provides plenty of shocks (the first one, especially, is a mix of frightening and hilarious) to maintain interest and a high level of tension. Bottom line: it was scarier and more fun than the majority of horror movies I’ve seen in theaters lately.

Can you guess who the least likable characters are? Of course, there’s a lot to criticize, too – though, first I must point out something I don’t criticize: the decision-making skills of the characters. First of all, we’re talking about a bunch of people who thought that visiting Chernobyl, the site of a still-radioactive nuclear disaster, would make for a super duper vacation. This is our baseline for smart decision-making. In other words, it’s not high. Which is not to say that I find it unrealistic, either; I don’t doubt that there are a multitude of idiots out there who think this would be awesome. So, yes, the characters make many, many dumb decisions throughout the movie. Is it annoying? Sure. Did I find it unrealistic? Absolutely not.

The only thing that bothered me was the ending. First, the two least interesting, least likable characters are the only ones left to see it. Second, it’s a total cop-out, a nothing ending that leaves the audience wondering what just happened, and simultaneously not giving a fuck. Really, it’s in keeping with the rest of the movie: it just is what it is, and what it is is adequate. There’s nothing below its surface, but luckily its surface is enough for one fun viewing. Frankly, I’m okay with that.

Final Rating (out of 5):