“Chernobyl Diaries” isn’t going to do the Russian National Tourist Office any favors, but it’s a solidly suspenseful (if somewhat disposable) horror movie that makes a haunted house out of a real-life disaster area.
Even if the attractive characters, and the order in which they die, feel like the kind of cookie-cutter stick figures that were so effectively spoofed in “The Cabin in the Woods,” first-time director Bradley Parker (working from a script co-written by “Paranormal Activity” creator Oren Peli) understands that suggesting is scarier than showing, and confusion generates more suspense than explanations do.
American tourists Chris (one-time teen idol Jesse McCartney), Natalie (Olivia Taylor Dudley) and Amanda (Devin Kelley) traipse their way across Europe on their way to Kiev, where they hook up with Chris’ ne’er-do-well brother Paul (Jonathan Sadowski). (The film opens with their travel videos, which plants the truly terrifying notion that this is going to be another first-person handheld-camera movie, but thankfully it switches gears pretty quickly.)
The plan is to proceed to Moscow, but Paul hooks the group up with “extreme tour” guide Uri (Dimitri Diatchenko), who takes the foursome — along with backpackers Michael (Nathan Phillips) and Zoe (Ingrid Bolsø Berdal) — to see Chernobyl, as well as the housing development at Pripyat, where nuclear plant employees and their families lived until they had to quickly flee the devastating accident in 1986.
Russian soldiers at a checkpoint block the travelers’ way, but Uri takes them in through a back road so that they can take photos for a few hours and leave without having too much exposure to the radiation. But wouldn’t you know it, someone (or something) rips some of the important cables out of Uri’s van, and they’re stuck there. And when night falls, things really start going badly.
You can pretty much guess what happens next, but “Chernobyl Diaries” makes at least some effort to tinker with the horror formula, subjecting the characters to natural frights (feral wolves and other wild animals, an ever-escalating amount of radiation) and some unnatural ones that the film wisely keeps hidden for as long as possible.
Fans of gore and mayhem will be disappointed by the film’s tendency to put most of the violence off-camera, but the movie more than makes up for that by steadily increasing the suspense. The abandoned buildings offer an endless supply of blind corners and hidden nooks and crannies, made all the more mysterious by the fact that the tourists’ one flashlight is the only light source.
“Chernobyl Diaries” is not without its idiotic moments — Paul chooses the most inconvenient times to forget that he speaks Russian — but it delivers enough jolts to make it a reasonably entertaining delivery system for 90 minutes’ worth of air conditioning and popcorn for audiences who’ve already seen “The Avengers.”