Stoning the Blair Witch: How “Chernobyl Diaries” mercy kills the found footage genre

For me, there are a couple of golden rules for watching and writing about movies. The first: disregard the premise. Before even stepping into a theater, its important to not really consider what you’re going into. Before the release of Ang Lee’s masterpiece, “Brokeback Mountain,” all anyone knew was that it was the picture about the gay cowboys starring two guys who were mostly known for appearing in cult teen films. It wasn’t a high pedigree. Seeing that movie in theaters was one of the most important moments in my development as a fan and film buff. It was all about seeing something that defied expectations, something that was the pure, crystalized result of one man’s hopes and expectations. I don’t think its a perfect movie but its a wildly ambitious and successful picture.

The second rule and the only rule that can make the first rule moot, is to suspend your disbelief. Recently, one of the ways in which film criticism has been watered down for the masses has been in turning the act solely into the practice of picking apart inaccuracies in films. Its nauseating and worse, its everywhere. The problem with thinking about movies like this is that it takes people out of the movie, making them think in a meta-textual fashion about film and critiquing them on forces that exist outside of the original work.

Now, granted suspending disbelief only goes so far. If a movie goes so far in forcing the viewer to go along with it that things no longer make sense within the context of the film, it is fair to critique it. Traditionally, people have said that changing one universal rule for a movie is as much as people can go with. For example, in “Star Wars,” there’s the force, an all powerful magical energy that can alter physics. Seems fair. Compare that to “Stardust” (the movie, not the considerably better book), which combines, elements of Renaissance style meets steampunk, meets high fantasy at a fairly rapid pace and expects that viewers should hang onto every second of it.

It also includes Robert De Niro at his Tim Curry-est.

I’ve sen a lot of shitty movies by ignoring the ridiculousness of a movie’s premise or the way in which the premise is perceived. I’ve sat through a lot of horror and fantasy movies because I’m able to suspend my disbelief. Its rare that I am unable to do both of those and its even rarer that being unable to do these things makes me unable to view a movie for even the fleeting feelings it is attempting to impart. “Chernobyl Diaries” was one of these movies.

Directed by first timer Bradley Parker and produced by found-footage horror big shot Oren Peli, of the “Paranormal Activity” franchise, “Chernobyl Diaries” sort of reeks of a cash grab, the way so goddamn many TV shows use Stephen Spielberg as a way to give a shred of legitimacy to their bullshit. “Chernobyl Diaries” does this every step of the way, whether its embracing the found footage angle before abandoning it 5 minutes in, using generic everyman protagonists in an attempt to create viewer surrogates, trying to use silence or flickers of movement to raise tension and the use of fuzzy and heavily distorted images to convey differing points of view, this is a knockoff if there’s ever been one.

The thing is, it never works. At all. The hold that the “Paranormal Activity” films have been able to have on the culture is the ability to make your own house seem scary. The story of a pair of girls that are haunted by an awesomely powerful demonic presence is there to do little more than to make your computer, your kitchen, your chairs and your fans into nightmare fuel.

This is impossible to do in an environment that a viewer doesn’t already know. All of the Oren Peli films released so far have focused on the home, whether its the demonic presence in suburbia in the “Paranormal Activity” films or the intrusion of the astral plane in “Insidious,” he horrifies us by what we know and can’t control. I’m not saying that all of his movies are successful (I think that the second “Paranormal Activity” is pretty schlocky but I digress) but the premise alone is able to speak to everyone that lives anywhere.

“Chernobyl Diaries” fails to do this from minute one. We’re off to Europe! We’re in Paris! We’re in London! We’re in Kiev! By the time we even get to the fallout zone, we haven’t had anytime to figure out what “normal” is. Instead, Parker and Peli go the “Hostel” route, attempting to make Europe into a frightening and strange place with all of the lawlessness we’re not used to as Westerners. They do this with a group of horny teenagers and a russian guy who doesn’t speak great English.

Are you shitting your pants yet?

[SPOILERS FROM HERE ON OUT, IT SHOULDN’T REALLY MATTER BECAUSE THIS MOVIE IS FUCKING WRETCHED AND I’M TRYING TO SAVE YOU SOME MONEY]

Where we go from there is little but depression porn. The group of wide-eyed douchey American tourists, led by Jesse McCartney in massive What-The-Fuck-casting, and a pair of horribly developed Icelanders take all gawk at nuked out buildings, stray trash and all the animals you can shake a stick at.

I was fighting back suspension of disbelief already at this point. In an episode of “Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations,” the chef goes to the city of Pripayat, where the first two acts of the movie take place, and is told repeatedly not to touch anything or walk on the grass, as the area is still highly irradiated. Yet, the tourists walk all over the place, pick stuff up and are told that by only staying a few hours in the town, they’re not going to suffer radiation poisoning.

I got over it. I dealt with the fact that lasers, missiles and escape pods wouldn’t make noise in space the vacuum of space in “Star Trek,” “Star Wars” or “Battlestar Galactica.” I can deal with scientific inaccuracies. I swallowed back bile and knowledge and dealt with it. As the group bunkered down in the car, I dealt with the fact that someone cut the wires because sure, why the fuck not. Its advancing the story, I’m not terribly distracted by it and hey its a cliche because it kind of works.

I was having to make these logical steps every couple of minutes. Of course Yuri dropped his walkie-talkie but not his gun, of course the clip fell in a different room than the gun, of course the people who were looking for a way out of the city would give the gun to the invalid country singer and his clingy girlfriend, of course the survivors would find the gun in the remains of a thoroughly destroyed and flipped van. You can only do this for so long but I’ve honed my skills. As I’ve said before, I kind of like “Star Wars: Episode I.”

I know I’ve been going on for over a thousand words now but its really time now to explain how the movie looks. In an attempt to tie his film in with the successful “Paranormal Activity” franchise, Parker deliberately apes the filming style, integrating shake and following cam into the film. Its very strange and for the first 20 minutes or so, I assumed there was another character that we hadn’t met following the characters around. There wasn’t.

I tried a second theory, that Parker was attempting to use hand cam in the same way it was used in the “Bourne” trilogy, maximizing the intensity, brutality and closeness of the melee combat. That even doesn’t make sense. In the scene where Yuri and Chris go out to see what the scream was, the camera lingers inside the car and all we see are the muzzle flashes of the gun going off. Again, when everyone’s trapped in the van after the engine wires are cut, the camera walks around the van from the outside, as if we’re supposed to be viewing a POV shot of someone watching the vehicle. What makes this worse is that its done in hand cam and the view bobbles as the cameraman walks. Its distracting and it takes us away from the theory that we’re using this visual style to increase tension or intensity.

So, the hand cam is just there to be an attempt to capitalize on the success of another film franchise. Great, really great. As I’ve said, it doesn’t make the film any more watchable and things get worse in the final act when the monsters finally show up. As the remaining survivors scramble through the concrete jungle, avoiding the mutant zombies, the camera shakes, the atmospheric sounds virtually disappear and nothing makes the situation suspenseful, particularly Parker’s steadfast decision to never make us care about the monsters. When we don’t care about the monsters, we’re not interested in the fact that he refuses to show them clearly.

Think about the way in which “The Blair Witch Project” handled this. We don’t ever see the horrors that the team faces but all we want to do is view it clearly. The fact that we watch as the characters lose control of the situation more and more binds us to the plot of the film. The final sequence, as the house is stormed all the way to the horrifying finale is done so that we’re obsessed with how the characters will survive or what the answers we’re looking to are. “Chernobyl Diaries” didn’t give us a reason to care about the monster, mostly because they don’t appear until we’re supposed to be scared of them and we never know anything about what they’re capable of, and it gives us even less of a reason to care about the characters.

The final act devolves into a fairly typical zombie film. The group flees rooms from the growing hoard, barricading doors along the way, trying to rescue their friends. Its dull as hell until a single scene that finally ruined my ability to follow along with the plot. I could make it through the shitty filmmaking choices, the dull characters and the inane plot, but one 30 second sequence lost me forever.

After making it deep into the city, the group stares at Amanda’s camera, trying to see an oddity in one of the pictures when the camera shows a little girl standing away from them. Well that’s odd, I think. Is that girl a reference to the baby doll found earlier and featured prominently in the trailer? Regardless, the group approaches her, leaving Natalie behind. As they close in on the girl, Natalie screams and is gone. When the group turns, the little girl disappears.

Alright, fair enough, a pretty typical distraction scare but take a second to actually think about it. From what we’ve seen of the mutant zombies, they mostly shamble and bite things and don’t seem to think independently. We’ve seen nothing but adult mutant zombies up to this point too, so she feels particularly out of place. So, the other option is that the girl is a ghost, maybe the apparition that Amanda saw in the window. That seems to throw the whole thing off, giving us too much to consider if we want to remain in the realm of the purely real and forcing us to suspend at least some of our precious disbelief. Maybe then, just maybe, the girl could be a hallucination brought on by the groups’ increasing levels of radiation poisoning. That’d be a pretty neat twist, so let’s check in on the symptoms of radiation poisoning. Uh, here we go. So, not a single of the many symptoms of radiation poisoning includes hallucinations. With all options explored within and without the film, there’s no chance that this scene has any chance of happening logically.

I was done by this point and there was still far too much to go (12 minutes or so. Like I said, it was really bad). The final two eventually make it out to find themselves near the reactor, where they enter the much better maintained hallways and finally begin suffering the effects of radiation poisoning. Eventually, they make their way out, where Paul is shot by the military and, for no real reason, Amanda is taken to a facility where she’s fed to the mutant zombies by the government. It makes no fucking sense but I was far too exhausted at that point to even think about it.

[SPOILERS END HERE. ENJOY THIS FINAL PARAGRAPH]

Whether its destroying the sense of belief that is intrinsic to the found footage genre, failing to make us believe in any of the threats or care about the characters or giving us far too many factual inaccuracies and problems at a basic level that its hard to want to dig into the premise, “Chernobyl Diaries” is all of the problems of the found footage and horror genre rolled into one. Its a resounding failure and one with the capacity to make Peli a much less bankable name than he once was. Making things even worse, Peli’s next two films (not counting “Paranormal Activity 4”) all use the same fish-out-of-water premise that ruined “Chernobyl Diaries” from the beginning. With the man who has been recognized as the face of the genre showing all of the potential to ruin it, there can’t be much hope of more of this style in the future.

Advertisements

Episode 35: “Catspaw” and horror done catastrophically wrong

One of my biggest pop culture weaknesses is sci-fi/horror. I love derelict freighters, loose killer aliens, science experiments gone wrong, unexplained phenomena, invasions, and time travel mishaps. There’s something intriguing about the way the future presents constant new situations for how the unknown is going to murder the hell out of us.

That being said, there has to be a solid foundation in realism for the premise to hold true. There’s a reason people remember the “Alien” series but not the misguided and mostly terrible “Pandorum;” one features a thoroughly realized world with a loose, near unstoppable threat that picks off people in a comforting but fresh way, while the other features a bunch of poorly explained barbarians shooting poison darts at that freshly unthawed douche bag from “Six Feet Under.”

Horror only works when there’s a solid sense of place. We have to believe in the very real so that the unreal elements have impact. The world of “Terminator” is extremely familiar to our own, but the appearance of the Terminator makes him a violent and unstoppable force that feels innately foreign and wrong. This sense of world building is what separates good horror from bad.

It’s also what separates “What Little Girls are Made of?” and “Catspaw,” the two true horror one shots we’ve had so far in The Original Series. Both penned by Lovecraft acolyte Robert Bloch, “Catspaw” fails in both the realm of horror as well as creating an intriguing story for the series.

Only one of those episodes features this.

Kirk, Spock and McCoy are set to be on a rescue mission from the start, as Sulu and Scotty have gone missing on a previously charted planet. Communication is blocked, so the triumvirate is left with no choice but to beam down to the planet to hunt for their compatriots. From the landing, things are bad. Smoke seeps through the bottom of the frame, and Spock and the Enterprise are getting conflicting readings on what life forms are on the planet. There’s some conflict, but the group decides to press onto a mysterious castle in the distance, but first they have to run across a trio of what appear to be straight-out-of “Macbeth” witches who warn Kirk about a curse that’s affecting the ship.

It is all downhill from here.

The thing is, the atmosphere for all of this works pretty well. It’s a dark and shadowy opening with hints of old school horror and just the necessary expected shocks that make this kind of b-list schlock work. All of that successful atmosphere work changes when the group gets to the castle, where everything quickly turns into an interplanetary episode of Scoobie Doo.

Long story short, Kirk, Spock and McCoy are led down a trap door by a cat where they are held hostage by a space wizard named Korob who is mind controlling Sulu and Scotty and communicating psychically with his cat, who’s also a foxy shapeshifting lady demon. How much of this makes sense? Hardly any. We are told that the wizard and his familiar are recent invaders to the planet and that they are somehow projecting traditional Earth images in an attempt to frighten Kirk and McCoy, but it doesn’t make a ton of sense. Can they read minds? It’s hinted that they have researched Earth extensively, but their information refers to the times before star travel.

Maybe the scariest part of this episode is how odd this perspective shot is.

So, it all comes down to the ultimate writer short cut, where it all ends up being a test. Sylvia and Korob seem to have a plan of some sort and after imprisoning McCoy and Spock in the dungeon, Sylvia does what all foxy women of the Star Trek universe do and tries to seduce Kirk. There are hints of her and Korob’s service to the Old Ones (another callback to “What are Little Girls Made of?”), but the woman seems more intent on experiencing sensations, particularly love. In typical Kirk fashion, the captain manages to get her to reveal her plan, involving stealing something called the transmuter from Korob and escaping with Kirk.

In case you didn't know, this show was made in the '60s.

Knowing that Sylvia is dangerous, Korob breaks the landing party out of the prison and is immediately trampled by a giant cat. Kirk, Spock and McCoy try to escape but are stopped by the still mind controlled Sulu and Scotty. They’re stopped and once again halted by the giant cat. Kirk grabs Korob’s wand and tries to fend the animal off, when, of course, Sylvia appears. Spock warns Kirk that she wants the wand, which is probably the transmuter. Sylvia and Kirk struggle over the wand and Kirk ultimately breaks it, making the castle disappear and revealing Korob and Sylvia to be a pair of small space lobsters that quickly die in the atmosphere.

And that’s it.

Actually, I kind of liked this too.

It feels strange that Bloch was unable to pull together a horror episode for the show, particularly after how successful “What are Little Girls Made of?” was at balancing those two needs. While his first entry feels like a smart sci-fi horror story, Catspaw” would only work for Star Trek, and as such, the episode vastly begins to fall apart when the characters can’t support it. “What are Little Girls Made of?” feels universal, like it could work regardless of what show did it because the story vastly works. “Catspaw” has that sense of very specific content that when the story begins to fall apart and isn’t interesting to begin with, the whole episode suffers as a result.

Random Thoughts

So, is Sylvia also the cat? We never see the two of them together, and we know that she can shapeshift, but that just seems really silly.

“Spock, comment?” “Very bad poetry, Captain.” “A more useful comment, Mr. Spock.”

Next Up: “I, Mudd” and oh shit, he’s back.