Thanks to some night-vision glow and time-lapse photography, Oren Peli’s sleeper hit Paranormal Activity made it pretty much impossible to sleep in your own bed. He’s since produced several sequels, as well as the ABC eco-horror-fantasia The River, but Peli’s latest movie ditches the found-footage formula and tackles something with a bit more scope – the Ukrainian ghost town of Pripyat, evacuated in days following the 1986 Chernobyl disaster.
The movie features a predictable cast of good-looking twentysomethings, including sometimes pop singer Jesse McCartney, he of the eternal babyface. The group is on the requisite post-collegiate European backpack journey, and when enterprising Paul proposes they skip Moscow and head to the Heart of Irradiated Darkness (Pripyat), it’s easy to sell them on a day of “extreme tourism.” See the trailer below:
True to the Peli gamebook, the trailer plays coy, but you can guess what these kids are up against. Mutants. Soviet mutants. In tone and subject matter, The Chernobyl Diaries recalls two predecessors that riff off Atomic Age anxieties and the perils of trailblazing tourism: Wes Craven’s 1977 The Hills Have Eyes (for added nuclear-testing rhetoric, see the 2006 remake) and Eli Roth’s 2005 Hostel.
Craven’s dusty survivalist film strands an overconfident family in a New Mexico wasteland after Papa Carter takes a “short cut” on the way to California. Sure of their resources (they have a CB radio, and look how helpful that was in The Shining!) the Carters proceed to make every possible mistake and are slowly picked off by a predatory clan of inbreeds. The remake exposes the radiation poisoning that’s made the hill creeps so vicious (and ugly) – garnering sympathy for the mutants and condemning the Cold War ethos that would prompt scientists to sacrifice an entire town for nuclear testing. When protagonist Doug creeps through the derelict village, shots of mannequin children and tattered American flags tap the same ghost town pall that Diaries is sure to employ.
Roth’s Hostel is another primer on what not to do on your summer vacation. When three backpacking bros embark on a European journey, they make every ugly American stereotype a reality – waking locals in the middle of the night, getting kicked out of clubs, frequenting Amsterdam’s smoke shops and Red Light District, even wearing fanny packs. At first, this looks like a sex tourism jaunt, until the guys find themselves kidnapped and brought to a torture dungeon where their bodies are up for sale. Thanks to the backpackers’ bravado and Eastern Bloc meets Western blockhead frisson, Hostel carries much of the atmospheric DNA The Chernobyl Diaries riffs on.
Is The Chernobyl Diaries a mutant genre of its own – and if so, does it have legs? With a lineage of bloody vacations, nuclear aberrations and Cold War chills, Diaries isn’t exactly covering virgin territory. But where Hills and Hostel lay the gore on fast and thick, Peli’s film (directed by Brad Parker) will likely rely more on more measured pacing and obscure threats, ratcheting the tension and keeping audiences as clueless as those stranded Americans. In the interests of taxonomy, let’s call it a psycho-nuclear-Soviet-sojourn film. You tell me. Or hell, cut out the middle-mutant and go to Pripyat yourself.