Chernobyl Diaries: A plot meltdown

I saw the Chernobyl Diaries the other day with Murry, a film that I was looking forward to seeing because, as I commented in my monthly trailer review, it looked like a promising proposition. After all who could resist finding out what radioactive horrors lurk in the shadows between abandoned Ukrainian apartment blocks?

So the plot; boyfriend and girlfriend Chris and Natalie along with newly single Amanda travel to Russia to meet with Chris’s brother Paul expecting a traditional tour of Moscow only to be convinced into going on an extreme tourist trip to the abandoned city of Pripyat. They are joined on the tour by two more tourists, couple Michael and Zoe, and Ukrainian tour guide Uri. Uri’s set up is not exactly legit, his van is run down with no seat belts and he is unable to convince the guards that patrol the rout into the radiation affected area to let them past. The group drive in through a back route meaning that no one else now knows where they are. (convenient) They explore the river, but don’t spot the hungry mutated Piranha like fish, then there look through the abandoned apartment blocks. We are let to believe that they are not alone, that there might be both wild animals and humans living here. The group intend to leave before it gets dark but when they arrive back at the van the engine wont start possibly due to sabotage. After various tedious arguments about what to do Uri (who reveals that he has brought a gun along) eventually walks off to get help, Chris chases after him. At this point as they disappeared around a bend and we in the audience wait to hear predictable gunshots. The boys run off to help, Chris is dragged back with a mangled leg, and we are told that Uri has been dragged away by something. From this point on the characters spend most of there time running about through abandoned locations and getting picked off one by one.

The film started out well, (ish) putting aside an opening sequence of video diary style clips of the American tourists visiting various typical European cities set to the Supergrass classic ‘We Are Young,’  Murry was disgusted with this particular sequence. I think they were going for the whole The Rules of Attraction (Roger Avary, 2002) thing (included here for your viewing pleasure: ) but it did not quite come off. There were a few opening set up sequences where the characters discussed their relationships to one another and discussed going on the trip, all with terrible dialogue. Despite all of this I thought Chernobyl still seemed promising at this point. Mainly because I was thinking about how I did not think much of the dialogue at the start of Wolf Creek (Greg Mclean, 2005) when I first saw it but by the end of the film I was really invested in the characters and what might happen to them. Then creepily Nathan Philips turned up playing Michael the Australian tourist, who actually played the main male part in Wolf Creek.

Some genuine tension was built up while the gang explored the ruins, and while they try to fix the van after the first attack on Chris and Uri where the visual style is close and claustrophobic. Then it all starts to fall apart. When daylight comes Natalie stays behind in the van with Chris who is unable to walk (There is a frankly embarrassing scene where he pulls out an engagement ring and tries to propose to her). The others go in search of help. They come across a huge car park filled with abandoned cars and manage to find a lead to fix the van with. However they are then chased off by wild and possibly radioactive dogs. Somehow this little escapade seems to take all day and by the time they get back to the van, the van has been destroyed and Chris and Natalie are gone. Despite the fact that the van being destroyed has just rendered most of the previous action pointless, this could still have been a tense scene where the characters have just lost their friend/brother and we could have continued to find out what creatures were out there targeting them. But instead they find a phone recording of how the van got destroyed. We are then treated too what can only be described as one of the most hilariously bad and distracting found footage style scenes I have ever witnessed. The tension was then ruined for the remainder of the film.

Some of the Ukrainian locations are beautiful and poetic with a ritualistic urban Gothic edge. One of the only possible reasons for watching this film again would be to study what are enviable locations for any horror film maker. It is such a shame that these locations aren’t used to better effect. Another disappointing element are the humans that live in the fallout. Director Oren Peli, who previously directed Paranormal Activity (2007), went to great lengths to disguise the look of the people of the fallout (as I shall call them) and then when we did catch glimpses of them towards the end they just seem to be a bunch of bald Ukrainian men. Not to mention the final ending itself which was hugely disappointing. I would not go so far as to say that it was a bad movie because believe me there is so much worse out there. I can safely say however that it was not a good movie because within only a few days of watching Chernobyl Diaries a large number of elements have begun to fade away into the crevices of my mind, and one of the tell tail results of seeing a good horror film is that you will be struck by particular elements which will stick with you. Haunting you if you will. And if I compare Chernobyl Diaries with Oren Peli’s other major film Paranormal Activity it reveals to me that the main problems with Chernobyl are script and acting. One of the reasons Paranormal was so effective as a low budget horror was its seeming use of improvisation which made the dialogue more naturalistic, and helped the audience to believe in the action. I’m not a huge fan of Paranormal (although I did particularly enjoy 3) it resonated with a large number of people and so it is a shame that Chernobyl falls short in this respect. It certainly wont take Chernobyl Diaries a hundred years to degrade.


The Cabin in the Woods

‘If you go down to The Cabin in the Woods today you’re sure of a big surprise!’

Let me begin by saying that if you were planning on seeing The Cabin in the Woods based on the trailer then this review is one big spoiler, because the trailer released for the film (as discussed it my previous post) bares absolutely no relation the the film itself except in the most tenuous senses. Apparently this is an intentional marketing ploy. Yes there is a cabin in the film, and yes it is indeed located in the woods, that is were the resemblance ends. The trailer promises a film where highly technically proficient red-necks lure a group of teens out to a cabin in the woods and trap them in a high-tech maze of two way mirrors, hidden cameras, and hidden lifts to other levels. I was expecting a mash up of Vacancy (Nimrod Antal, 2007), Saw (James Wan, 2004), and Friday the 13th (Sean S. Cunninghan, 1980) with a few original Joss Whedon twists thrown in. How wrong I was…

So what is it really all about? Danna, Curt, Jules, Marty, and Holden are a bunch of young, attractive college friends driving off in their camper van to stay at a relatives cabin in the woods.  We are introduced to the group while they are packing and setting out, the idea is that each one looks to the nonplussed observer like a traditional horror stereotype; Jules is ‘the whore,’ Curt is ‘the athlete,’ Marty is ‘the fool’ aka ‘the stoner,’ Dana is ‘the virgin,’ I forget what Holden was supposed to be, because to be honest none of their characters were all that interesting. I think he was supposed to be the intelligent one. And now all we need is Judd Nelson right? But in actual fact the film-maker is trying to tell us that these characters are completely different on the inside from what you see on the outside. An example of this is in the opening scene where Curt recommends a very thick and heavy going academic book to Dana, proving that he is not a ‘jock.’ This is not entirely pulled off, however I need to flash forward and explain a bit more of the plot so that I can come back again and tell you why.

So they go merrily off to the cabin in the woods, and it all seems like a perfectly innocent romantic weekend apart from the two way mirrors, the wolf heads, and the paintings of zombies tearing people limb from limb.We know better of course, and are told as much by the parallel action running along side in a top secret US military base where Sitterson and Hadley, played by the amazing Richard Jenkins (Burn After Reading, 2008) and Bradley Whitford (The West Wing, 1999) are secretly orchestrating events in the cabin. This is where it gets quite interesting (and comic) because Sitterson and Hadley oversee the American end of an annual international competition to appease the ancient Gods of the earth. If the Gods are not appeased then the earth will end and the only thing that will appease them is the blood of the young, who must each represent a certain archetype and must all die in a certain order. This is a comment on the traditional slasher movie where usually the young characters fit certain stereotypes and tend to die in order, with the virgin being last. The cabin is an elaborate set-up rigged to encourage the kids to make certain decisions which will eventually lead to their own destruction.  The guys in the lab monitor events through the cameras and help events to go in their favour using highly advanced technology. The group go down to the basement of the cabin where they find a variety of different items that can unlock various different evils, amusingly the guys in the lab hold a betting pool on what creature will be awakened, Dana reads out a passage of Latin from a diary which unleashes a zombie redneck torture family who then proceed to try and kill everybody.

So it’s all sounding very original so far, and it is, The Cabin in the Woods is a very original film and probably will be the most original American pure horror genre film out this year. (I have worded this in order to exempt Prometheus which will be the best film of the year full stop) Now back to my previous point about why this does not entirely work for me. The main message of the film is that society needs to impose a set of stereotypes onto us, whether in horror films or in real life, in order to ‘survive’ along with it’s social structures. Within the film Marty the ‘stoner’ is the only person who can see what is really going on at each point in the action because he is the only one who can see that societies rules and conventions as a whole are a load of bat s**t. Where this does not come off is that from various indicators placed along the way we the audience are supposed to realise that the main characters are not stereotypical, and do not become their intended stereotypes until the guys in the lab (who represent larger society) impose those characteristics on them by, for example, pumping pheromones into the woods to encourage Curt an Jules to become the horny ‘jock’ and ‘whore’ stereotypes. In my view this was all very unclear, so much so that one of the characters has to spell out what is going on about half way in, the result is that the whole way through all of the characters are fairly two dimensional, with the exception of Marty, and the guys in the lab. If you are going to make a comment on horror tropes, and stereotypes that you really need to break them as well. Curt, Jules and Dana needed to be a lot more interesting.

Now what really gets my goat! Firstly the trailer, in my mind the trailer was selling me the promise of a film that would be both original, and scary. Yes Cabin is funny, yes it is original, no it is not scary. Redneck zombie torture families are NOT scary, I am so sick of seeing zombies everywhere, I am just thankful there were no Vampires! A film that purports to be a horror film even if it is funny, and original needs to contain a certain level of actual fear in order to be anything more than just a pastiche. The prime example is Scream (Wes Craven, 1996) it is a funny movie, commenting on horror tropes and conventions, and when you see it for the first time it is damn scary. Even a harden horror fan would admit that even if they were not quaking in their boots, they did care about what happened to Drew Barrymore, and they did care about what happened to Rose McGowan because those scenes contained suspense, and those characters, stereotypes or not, were well written. In many ways The Cabin in the Woods is trying to be Joss Whedon’s Scream, and it is nice that a new generation will have an experience similar to that, but at the end of the day Kevin Williamson did it better (cue rendition of Nobody Does it Better!)

My second and final big hairy goat is that the best bit of the film is where Dana and Marty go down in a lift and are confronted with a number of different scenarios that could have a occurred had they made a different choice in the cellar. This was really, really cool but left me wishing I had seen some of that instead. (stupid redneck zombies!) In the end I came away from watching The Cabin in the Woods feeling that I really need to see Evil Dead (Sam Raimi, 1981) again…