With the number of cheapo horror movies coming out, whose trailers all make them look the same (dumb young people, desaturated blue palette, things jumping out with loud noises) it can be hard to tell which ones are good, and which are, well, as lame and cheap as they look. You have to actually sit through them to discover that a Sinister is unexpectedly good, while a Possession is typically awful. This one looked quite cheap and terrible, with a gimmicky premise and a well-worn situation (dumb American tourists in peril), that you'd never be able to tell that the circumstances and setting end up being unexpectedly creepy, and the director has a flair for using point of view and lighting to make the finished product smart and effective.
So we have a group of three tourists on a European vacation. They are Chris and Natalie, blonde couple, and brunette Amanda, single. They travel to Kiev, where they meet Chris' brother, Paul, a smirky, brash Jimmy Fallon-type. The plan is to go to Moscow, but Paul suggests they take an "extreme tourism" day trip to Prityat, city next to Chernobyl that was abandoned after the nuclear accident. They meet Uri, large Russian who operates these unapproved tours, working alone with his own van, and another tourist couple, Norwegians Zoe and Michael. And off they go to Chernobyl! The kids are typically dumb, superficial and obsessed with gadgets, but just enough that you'd be amused to watch them die, not so much that you hate them.
They drive out, and seen they come to a checkpoint. Uri is usually allowed in, but this time he isn't. Paul starts to complain in that annoying frat-boy way ("We paid to see Chernobyl!"), and Uri takes them in a back way, which requires them to drive through woods. Along the way they stop alongside a creek, where they find a strange, toothy fish. When Uri throws a piece of jerky in the water, we see big fish zooming for it. We're obviously setting up some of the scenes of future carnage, but it was around here that I realized: this movie is genuinely creeping me out. I don't really care abut radiation or mutants, but... something about the whole premise, and the eerie deserted setting was really working on me.
So they go into town and park by this deserted Ferris wheel. They walk around the deserted city (I guess it was shot in Hungary and Serbia, but they are indeed in a deserted city, not a set), taking pictures, etc. They go into an apartment and see the nearby Chernobyl plant. Uri finds a still-smoldering fire, but says nothing. There is a scary encounter with some wildlife. But it's getting dark, and it's time to get back to the van. They do, only to find it won't start. Someone--or some THING--has chewed the wires. And their phones don't work. And Uri has no associates he can call. Paul, who apparently has a history of getting Chris into trouble with his reckless ways, receives a harsh rebuke. And gradually they realize they're stuck there for the night, which they're not very pleased about.
SPOILERS > > >
They start hearing noises outside. Uri has a a gun, takes a flashlight, and goes out. Chris goes with him. The point of the view stays with the kids in the van, as they watch Uri and Chris walk off, then see something and enter the brush. Then--the flashes of gunfire! Paul, now (and for the rest of the film) feeling guilty that he's gotten his brother into this mess, runs out after them. He drags Chris back, leg chewed up quite nastily. They get back in the van, everyone is freaking, and then--dogs attack the van! The movie gets a lot of good mileage from showing the kids inside the lit van, with the large windows showing only blackness, where anything might appear at any moment. Then, and this was the moment I realized that this director is actually quite canny, the lights in the van flicker and go out... and the dim light of the surrounding city slowly becomes visible. Nice one!
Surprise, they survive the night. By daylight, three of them go out looking for Uri, and help, leaving injured Chris and two others in the van. The explorers go into a building, where we have effective visuals of them as black silhouettes, everything getting darker as they go inside. They find Uri's body, mostly eaten. There is suspense as something comes back, causing them to hide and escape. In a lot of abandoned cars, they find the wires they need to fix the van! But when they return, the van is upside-down and totally ravaged, everyone inside it gone. These kids are really screwed.
Feral dogs chase them across a rickety bridge over the river, and we know that someone will fall in and become fodder for the mutant fish. It happens, but he only receives a few bites--I sort of thought he'd be torn apart, pirhana-style. Then, with only thirty minutes left, we have the first hint that what they'll end up facing are mutated humans. It's getting dark, and they're losing their opportunity to start walking out, but Paul, still feeling guilty, can't just leave his brother behind. Soon they are facing hordes of mutant people, and end up pursued into a building, and into the basement.
Again the technique and planning shine as the only illumination is the kids' flashlight, creating all sorts of effective shadows and silhouettes and eerie visions. It does seem, since it is the sole source of light in several scenes, to be the brightest flashlight in existence. They are pressed deeper and deeper underground, through these narrow stone hallways, also clever and effective. And there's a great moment, way deep underground, where the flashlight suddenly fails.
< < < SPOILERS END
That's where I'll stop, although there's a tiny bit left to go, including a nice little crib from Night of the Living Dead. I could have used it to end at one point, but it does on a bit more, but not enough to offend. Overall, not just better than expected, but all-round pretty good! The situation and setting are much more effectively creepy than I had anticipated, with an abundance of dark and scary places. You also aren't quite sure what they'll be attacked by next, so there's not just one threat, there are many. Finally, the director is smart, and has a good visual sense that he puts to nice use. There are many scenes when we stay with distant observers, rather than the people out exploring danger, and this works to heighten the scariness of what's out there. The whole thing of being trapped in the van with a big dark world of terrors outside is good, and he knows how to create striking visuals in the low light and darkened interiors. Then, in the last few minutes, having a flashlight as the only source of illumination creates suspense and effective visuals, and the driving of our characters into narrow underground spaces also works quite well.
So in the end it is what it is, which is a cheap, somewhat gimmicky quickie horror film variation on what is becoming a little mini genre--ignorant American tourists in peril--but it was a smart version of that, directed with intelligence and a keen visual sense. And the whole contamination by radiation and abandoned city situation offered plenty of variety of settings, malevolent creatures and eerie situations, which was also a pleasant surprise. Overall, an unexpected winner.
If you like this kind of thing, this is a good version.