Chernobyl Diaries: setting ripe for horror let down by hollow thrills

Pripyat is a great setting for a scary flick, complete with props, and Chernobyl Diaries builds up to a good scream but chokes when it matters.

Amanda (Devin Kelley) and Paul (Jonathan Sadowski) are part of the group of seven who go to seek thrills in the abandoned town of Pripyat, despite warnings, in Chernobyl Diaries. Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures
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Chernobyl Diaries
Director: Bradley Parker
Starring: Jesse McCartney, Jonathan Sadowski, Olivia Dudley, Devin Kelley

The city of Pripyat, built in 1970 to house workers at the Chernobyl power plant, was evacuated and abandoned within hours of the nuclear disaster in 1986. Now a ghost town, the city has taken on an almost iconic status. Trees are growing in the deserted concrete structures. Buildings have collapsed over time. It's a vision of a post-apocalyptic Earth. Ukraine's answer to Detroit.

The notable landmark in Pripyat is a Ferris wheel located in the amusement park, which has featured in video games such as Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare and the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series. The rusting wheel also takes centre state in The Chernobyl Diaries, a film with a great premise - it's penned by Paranormal Activity creator Oren Peli - and the perfect ready-made scary location. It's just a shame that all the early promise is wasted in what turns out to be a run-of-the-mill horror movie reminiscent of Eli Roth's overrated Hostel.

The director Bradley Parker starts with a video montage of Americans having fun across Europe. The trio on the rampage are Chris (the cherubic pop star McCartney), the belle Natalie (Dudley) and the heart-broken Amanda (Kelley). They are in Kiev visiting Chris's wild and irresponsible big brother Paul (Sadowski). The next stop on their whistle-stop tour is Moscow, but on the morning that they are about to leave, Paul persuades the group to take an extreme holiday trip to Pripyat.

Enter the big Ukranian tour guide Uri (Dimitri Diatchenko) and the fellow extreme tourists, Norwegian chick Zoe (Ingrid Bolso Berdal) and the bearded Australian Michael (Nathan Phillips). The seven voyage in a battered minivan to the abandoned town, ignoring the guards telling them to turn back. As they walk through the derelict buildings, Uri gives his charges a potted history of the city where wild dogs wander and warns that they can only spend so much time there without being overexposed to the radiation that's still in the air.

As with Paranormal Activity, the slow pacing builds up to a nice tension. Then, quicker than a split atom, it all goes to pot. A bear running through a building promises much, but is the signal for tedium. The group gets chased and picked off by unknown entities that are barely visible in the dark. The stylistic hand-held camerawork has been so overused in the genre that it detracts from the action on the screen. It seems all the worse having initially promised so much.