Update: I'm hearing conflicting reports that Chernobyl Diaries may avoid the found footage trap altogether by...not being a found footage movie. The appearance of Oren Peli's name in the marketing material as well as certain footage from the trailer would support its cinema verite approach. The movie hasn't screened for press so it's hard to say just what Chernobyl Diaries is. If it turns out to be found footage, however, these suggestions stand...
Despite my deep, abiding love for the genre, I freely admit that horror gets stuck in a rut. The genre finds itself in a routine when movies are produced within a given format simply because it has proven financially viable in the past, rather than, say, because it’s a story worth telling or a worthwhile film in general. This weekend's Chernobyl Diaries is yet another found footage horror film, this time centering on a group of six friends who engage in extreme tourism in an abandoned Ukrainian village. I am not intending to prejudge Chernobyl Diaries of course, but its chosen storytelling device elicits concern. But like all conventions and familiar styles, there may be ways the movie can avoid falling into the found footage trap.
First and foremost, Chernobyl Diaries, has to go easy on the “based on a true story” nonsense. So often, we’re force-fed the deception that the events we watch unfold in a found footage movie are actual events and not scripted entertainment. Take The Devil Inside: it actually professed, so ardently and dishonestly, that its events were genuine, that it offered a website where people could go for more information on the “real story.” Or how about The Fourth Kind? Milla Jovovich walks up to the camera during the prelude and all but shakes the audience as she spuriously espouses, “no seriously, this is TOTALLY real.”
Chernobyl Diaries is in a rare, advantageous position in this regard, as the setup for their horrific tale is based on the actual Chernobyl nuclear disaster of 1986. So if it must throw the obligatory text on the screen in the film’s opening, simply state that much. Do not further the gimmick by striving to perpetuate the lie that the story of the doomed tourists is anything but fiction. Frankly, if the movie develop its characters and its scares enough, the ruse will not even be necessary. The simple fact is that once the curtain was pulled back and we found out The Blair Witch Project was not real, it ruined the ploy from that point forward.
One thing I would highly encourage the filmmakers of Chernobyl Diaries to do (I say as if the movie isn’t definitely and unalterably wrapped) is to explore the space a bit. Most found footage movies, or at least their scares, take place in cramped bedrooms, eerie barns, or low-rent apartment buildings. While these settings play to our collective claustrophobia, they can often be quite limited and necessitate the prevalence of jump scares, as the action must inherently move inward toward the camera.
However, you look at something like Cloverfield, with its expansive cityscape under siege, and you start to understand the potential afforded to Chernobyl Diaries, a film that takes place in an entire abandoned town. The movie can create fright with depth and shadowy movement in the distance. We already know from the trailers that Chernobyl Diaries’ apparitions will be visible, as opposed to the one in Paranormal Activity, so think how unsettling it would be to see a specter briefly in the background as opposed to cheaply popping up in our faces.
More than anything, I hope beyond hope that Chernobyl Diaries makes the conscious choice to use steadicam. The “cinema verite” element of found footage leads to most of these films sacrificing picture stability for fabricated realism. We watch characters running around, frantically trying to escape supernatural dangers while we in the audience are constantly on the verge of motion sickness. Since we’re all well aware of the fallacy of the “true story” angle, maybe audiences' suspension of disbelief is capable of extending to the conceit that these characters are equipped with steadicam? Our stomachs would be forever grateful for this concession. Perhaps there could even be some reason for security cameras to be mounted all over Pripyat? Perhaps to stop all this illegal extreme tourism? Then, like Chronicle, we could see the ghostly events from multiple angles in addition to seeing it directly through the characters’ lenses. But failing that, yes, please at least keep the action steady and in focus.