Chernobyl Diaries: Taste meltdown...
Chernobyl Diaries (Director: Bradley Parker, Certificate 15)
Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (Director: Timur Bekmambetov, Certificate tbc)
Chernobyl Diaries is a US horror film released this week, made by the team behind the creepy low-budget chiller Paranormal Activity. It begins with four callow, horny, good-looking young American tourists visiting Kiev. Three of them are keen to get on with their European travels – like figures in a Chekhov play they long to go to Moscow. But the thrill-seeking Paul (Jonathan Sadowski) persuades them to join him on a bit of “extreme tourism”.
So with ex-military tour guide Uri, they all hop in a van and head for Pripyat, the town that was abandoned following the disaster at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in 1986. “We’ll take some pictures…” Paul’s travelling companion says, “then we’ll be on our way.” Hmm, not so sure about that…
So it turns out that, after driving through an unmanned checkpoint (“We are now entering the exclusion zone,” Uri announces in his world’s-worst-tour-guide growl), the tourists are being freaked out by angry bears and have to stay the night when their van breaks down.
Which is the cue for a wave of night-time attacks by murderous, mutant human creatures transformed by the rocketing radiation levels that hit the area after the disaster.
The scary stuff is reasonably well orchestrated – all conducted in gloomy and artfully dilapidated Soviet-era industrial buildings, to a racket of human screams and atonal clangs. And I guess the film is entertaining enough purely on horror terms.
Yet something about it unsettled me far more than the gory torch-lit close-ups of wounds and glimpses of monstrous figures in the dark. The reason Chernobyl Diaries disturbs is the way its film-makers have turned to a human tragedy for fictional thrills.
Dozens of emergency workers died after fighting the blast at the power station and scientists have put the number of deaths related to the disaster in the thousands. As far as I can see, no one in the scientific community has identified among the harmful effects of Chernobyl the emergence of the kind of zombie-like creatures who people this horror film. To draw on a real-life disaster for some – let’s be honest – pretty schlocky scare tactics seems a little crass.
Maybe I’m being over-sensitive, but then again a US charity set up after the accident has accused the producers of this film of exactly the same thing, and they have a right to be heard. Writer-producer Oren Peli responded by claiming that the film was made with the greatest respect for the victims of the disaster, which suggests his gift for fantasy applies to rebuffing complaints by charities as well as making horror films.
One of Peli’s comments does resonate, however: “The film, though fictional, may shine a light on a tragedy too many people have forgotten.” True, but there are more considered ways to depict the disaster. Made last year on the 25th anniversary of the meltdown, the Russian film Innocent Saturday portrayed 36 hours in the lives of a handful of characters living next to the power plant.
It’s a sombre account of the numbed reaction of ordinary people to the catastrophe: in many cases the only option they had was to carry on as normal because fleeing, especially in Soviet-era Ukraine, was not an option. It’s yet to find a UK distributor, which is a shame because its truth is a whole lot scarier than the flimsy fantasy of Chernobyl Diaries.
And another thing… Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. It hasn't screened yet, but if only for that title this wildly speculative account of the United States’ 16th president looks fun.
The Plague of the Zombies (1966)
Hammer Horror films defined the genre in Britain, churning out creature features that provided cheap thrills with genuine chills. Two years before George A Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, Hammer had already let loose an army of garishly made-up extras in a wood and given a valuable lesson in why not to meddle in black magic. Hammer recently rose from the dead itself, making, among others, The Woman in Black (see http://www.bigissue.com/features/interviews/1153/liz-white-its-biggest-s...)– but it’s worth recalling its gory glory days. Director: John Gilling. Out now on Blu-ray