Chernobyl Diaries sounds like one of those horror flicks that you know will really work, even if its producer (Oren Peli of Paranormal Activities fame or infamy, depending on how you regard his horror sub-genre) pitched you a one or two sentence logline. I mean you can just imagine the possibilities of reading this: "American tourists take an unsanctioned day trip to the site of the Chernobyl disaster; they discover this ain't a ghost town as they fall to cannibalistic, radioactive, zombie survivors of the nuclear meltdown". In film critic language, I would say that with such a premise, the film practically writes itself. In film financing language, Mr McBucks might say that he could already see the picture in his mind just reading that sentence. In film audience language, you might say this sounds scary already and you can already see yourself screaming in the cinema from all the scares you know should be there.
It's a horror film with a premise that's so bare-bones and stripped down, practically all the producer needs to do is hire a writing team that's not entirely incompetent. Practically all the film crew needs to do is make sure there is atmosphere, suspense, and real scares. With locations in Serbia and Hungary standing in for the run-down, decaying infrastructure of Prypiat, Chernobyl, the atmosphere is all but assured. With the film crew dutifully replicating the close handheld camera angles of recent low budget faux-documentary horror titles while having the cast run around in narrow corridors and cellars of abandoned buildings, you have the suspense.
Yet for some mysterious reason, there are completely zero scares — and this is what trips up Chernobyl Diaries. There is precious little gore, victims are all dispatched off-screen, you never get a good view of the mysterious radioactive cannibalistic possible zombies. At best, they look like pasty-white Japanese horror denizens. At worst, they look like the film had such a low budget, it couldn't afford a make-up department.
So two out of three isn't too bad, right? Quite possibly so — but only if you're a lily-livered moviegoer who wants to watch a horror film that makes you feel scared but doesn't actually scare you.