NB: these are my notes on the film, not a review – so you might not want to read them if you’ve not seen it yet.
Though heavily touted as ‘from the creator of Paranormal Activity’, this is actually the directing debut of Bradley Parker, who has previously toiled as an effects wonk. Paranormal’s Oren Peli produced, thought up the story and scripted, assisted in the latter capacity by Dick Van Dyke’s grandsons Carey and Shane, whose CV includes varied gigs for ripoff outfit the Asylum. Shane Van Dyke wrote, directed and starred in the Asylum’s Paranormal Entity, which might have made for some embarrassment at script meetings but at least shows Peli is man enough not to hold a grudge. Despite the title and pedigree, this isn’t yet another found footage film – though it still has that hand-held, running-to-keep-up-with-the-action camerawork. If anything, it’s a found location film – as a bunch of Americans and Australians even more irksome than the kids in The Darkest Hour are on holiday in Europe and opt for an ‘extreme tourism’ trip to Pripyat, the service city for the Chernobyl Nuclear Plant, which was abandoned during the famous meltdown disaster. The film wasn’t shot on the real location, for obvious reasons, but the production designers do a fabulous job of creating the place – desolate Soviet concrete apartment blocks and public spaces, overgrown with weeds, with an abandoned funfair, and ominous detritus.
It’s a great setting, obviously, but sadly that’s about all the movie has going for it beyond a couple of effective scares (the best moment is an early cameo for a bear which blunders through an abandoned apartment). The formula of the holiday horror film is rigidly observed. A too-long first act establishes a bunch of characters and their relationships, which only serves to irritate viewers who are likely to write them off as a bunch of assholes who deserve to die rather than become involved in their petty business. A recent cliché, which I think goes back to the remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, has a guy early on show his pals a wedding ring he intends to surprise his girlfriend with – setting up a moment of cheap poignance later when it comes out after a few horrors and when they’re more concerned with trying to escape than planning a wedding. The lead is Paul (Jonathan Sadowski, from the Friday the 13th remake), whose idea it is to drag his younger brother Chris (Jesse McCartney, from the Joe Hill Locke & Key pilot), Chris’s blonde girlfriend Natalie (Olivia Taylor Dudley) and Natalie’s just-dumped brunette best friend Amanda (Devin Kelley) onto the extreme tour guided by ex-special forces guy Uri (Dimitri Diatchenko). At the last minute, Aussie Michael (Nathan Phillips, from Wolf Creek, Dying Breed and Snakes on a Plane – you’d think he’d never go on holiday again after that) and Norwegian Zoe (Ingrid Bolsø Berdal, from the Cold Prey films) cram into Uri’s van After a wander around the desolate city, the bear incident and some ominous stuff involving figures glimpsed in photographs, wild dogs and a ticking geiger counter, the van is sabotaged, Uri blunders off to get killed and the kids are trapped in town with a menacing force.
It’s a problem that the mostly unseen threat turns out to be the most obvious thing you – and the screenwriters – could think of, but more of a drawback that it all becomes so familiar as characters run around screaming, the camera always seems to be looking the wrong way whenever anything happens, and an attempt to build up Paul’s guilt at always getting his brother in trouble founders because they’re all obviously doomed by the conventions of this sort of thing anyway. We get the stupid decision to split up with the promise that the unwounded survivors will hike off for help and come back to rescue the injured parties, eerie little kids standing in the distance like J-horror spooks, bald and blurry radioactive folk with bad eating habits (who are still well enough to give chase), decontamination-suited cover-up creeps (never ever trust them, especially if they strap you to a gurney), killer dogs (the film might have worked better if it had just stuck with them) and a high dose of lethal radiation, but it’s all stuffed in by rote. Casting Berdal suggests the filmmakers have at least seen Cold Prey, a textbook example of how to make a film as cliché in conception as this but give it life by working on the characters of the victims – it’s a shame they weren’t capable of doing something similar, and an insult that they give her the worst screaming whiny idiot role.