MAY 25, 2012
If Paranormal Entity actually had credits or an IMDb page when I saw it a couple years back, maybe I would have noticed that the guys behind it were credited with the script (along with producer Oren Peli) for Chernobyl Diaries, which is sadly more interesting than anything in the movie. Is there no better reward for creating an Asylum mockbuster than getting a nice paycheck and big theatrical release alongside the guy whose movie you were mockbusting? Well, probably, but it’s still kind of awesome.
That said, I guess it’s not much of a surprise that Chernobyl often feels like the biggest budgeted Asylum movie ever, in that there’s not a lot of action, the (seemingly improvised) dialogue is atrocious, and it seems as if it may have been shot in 10 days tops. And the plot seems cobbled together from other films, notably The Ruins (tourists going into an area that they shouldn’t, led by a local who should know better) and The Hills Have Eyes (mutants living in a town that has been abandoned due to radiation exposure). There’s also a touch of films like Catacombs and Urban Explorer, with the idea of “off the record” tour groups going into a dangerous place and then panicking when they find themselves in danger.
However, despite the paint by numbers plotting, it actually works for the most part. The location is terrific, with husks of buildings, ferris wheels, and cars littering the overgrown fields and disgusting streams that comprise the town of Pripyat (the residential area next to Chernobyl that was evacuated instantly after the reactor meltdown in 1986). With Paranormal Activity on the brain, it’s easy to get into the same habit of constantly scanning the frame looking for the bad guys lurking in the background or peering out of windows, and the constant threat of entering an area that’s too rich with radiation adds a ton of tension to the chase/panic scenes, as they can’t always simply run in the opposite direction if their Geiger counter starts chirping. Add in the disintegrating bridges and walkways and other elemental dangers, and you have a place that would be pretty terrifying even without any living threats.
But the movie has a bunch of those too; in fact, possibly too many. While there is evidence of a human presence early on (Yuri, the tour guide and the film’s best character, notices the ashes of a recent campfire while the tourists take photos in the next room), the movie doesn’t really show its mutant characters until the 3rd act, and you will never get a good look at them without the aid of a pause button. However, the 2nd act is loaded with animal dangers – dogs and wolves roam the area seeking fresh food while providing the film with its most terrifying sequence (an attack on their van). There’s also another animal that appears out of nowhere and in an unexpected place, which is probably the best jump scare in the movie even though the CGI on said animal is kind of shitty - director Brad Parker is a VFX guy, who what gives? (NOTE - I have been told this was a real bear. It had that weird glossy look to it so I assumed it was CGI. Perhaps a composite? Or just one of the many drawbacks of digital projection? At any rate - my apologies). Honestly, I think the movie would have worked better without the mutants at all – there was enough to generate a good scary movie just with the setting and the animal threats. The mutants just create too many questions, and having a bunch (dozens, it seems) of anonymous mutants doesn’t do enough to distinguish itself from Hills Have Eyes, which had only a few villains, but they were memorable and unique from one another. Even the average zombie film has a couple of “hero” undead, so why Parker and Peli neglected to make even ONE distinct menace is kind of puzzling.
There are two other issues that must be addressed, though only one really bugged me personally. Despite the trailer’s focus on the film’s (very few) video-shot scenes and the title, which makes no sense within the film (whose diaries, exactly? The movie is not anyone’s account of an event, nor is there a diary shown in the film), this is NOT a found footage film – it’s just shot like one, with an exclusively hand-held approach and a general lack of grace to the cinematography. There are even major scenes that happen off camera, as if there was an unseen 7th tourist filming everything and constantly sticking with Devin Kelley’s character (not that I’d blame him). At one point Yuri and one of the other characters head off to check something out, leaving the rest of them in the van as the camera just swooshes around looking out the window, where we can’t see a damn thing, instead of following the others who are actually doing something interesting. I assume the point is to put us in Kelley’s shoes throughout the runtime, but when the film is marketed as a found footage film, and written by the guy responsible for the sub-genre’s newfound popularity, it can be a bit disorienting. There were two or three moments (including the one described above) where I momentarily wondered who was currently filming, only to remind myself that the camera operator was not a character in the film.
The other issue didn’t bug me as much, but I can see how it might be a major problem for the intended audience – almost nothing happens in the first hour. One could argue that the Paranormal films are guilty of this as well, but they always had some really great, unnerving scares to guide us along, not to mention slightly less idiotic protagonists. The folks here are all pretty dumb (for example, the mutants destroy a certain car part, which they are able to locate in another car later, but no one takes into account that they also killed the battery and have no means of jump-starting it), and the setting/situation doesn’t lend itself to the “this could happen to me!” feeling that the Paranormal films excel at. I might someday find myself besieged by a ghost in my own home, but I’m pretty sure I’ll never be on the run from mutants in a radiated city (mostly because I’m lazy). So there’s a lack of built-in familiarity with the situation, and given today’s audiences’ short attention span, they might not have the patience to make it until the first kill before they start texting and ruining the experience for everyone else in the theater (luckily, mine was close to empty). And that’s not even mentioning the interminable first reel (hah! “Reel”), consisting of all the “character development” and rather flimsy chain of events that gets them into the town without permission. One character plans to propose to his girlfriend, a stock horror movie subplot made even more groan-inducing by the dialogue, as the guy checks to make sure his girlfriend isn’t looking before showing the ring to his brother, and then adding “I haven’t asked her yet.” Well no shit you haven’t, asshole, that’s why the ring’s in your pocket instead of on her finger. Sadly that’s not even the most eye-rolling example.
And even when the mutants DO show up, there’s not a lot of on-screen action of note, and that’s where I’ll warn you that there are SPOILERS AHEAD!!! Of the seven deaths in the film, only two of them actually occur on-screen, with all of the others being a variant of “they are pulled away and never seen again”. There’s also a lack of a satisfying fight back; even in movies where all of the characters die (such as the Texas Chainsaw prequel), there’s a moment of triumph for the heroes, but this movie never has one. I think one mutant gets kicked away, but that’s about it, with the final five minutes seemingly setting up a sequel (or prequel) and being so vague and poorly constructed that it might change the mind of even someone who loved it until that point. The movie’s rich atmosphere and admirable restraint (be it creative or budgetary) bought it a lot of goodwill with me, but I’ll probably be in the minority, and I think disappointment with the final 5 minutes will be fairly unanimous.
As I noted on Twitter, this is like the best January horror movie ever released in the summer. Every January the studios put out a couple of mildly entertaining, mostly disposable horror flicks that would have no chance of competing in the summer against the big budget stuff, or in October with the most prestigious horror fare (i.e. Paranormal Activity sequels). I’m not sure why Warner thought going up against Avengers, Battleship, and Men In Black 3 (not to mention their own Dark Shadows, which I assume they thought would be making far more money still given its 150 million budget) would be the best idea; granted the film couldn’t have cost much, but it still seems a shoe-in to be crushed by the competition, especially when it’s such a shrug of a movie. My guess: this way they’ll be able to have it on DVD for the Halloween season, which is just as well – it’s the most average horror film of the year and thus perfect rental fodder.
What say you?