The Awakening and Chernobyl Diaries happened to come in from Netflix on the same day so I watched them back to back in order to form a comparison even though, apart from the fact that they are both horror movies, they don’t have much in common. One is a classy ghost story in the vein of The Others and the other is a lowbrow zombie picture with radioactive mutants standing in for the zombies. So why compare them? Because, much like Total Recall and Dredd, one of these movies succeeds and the other fails on the basis of what is and isn’t in their stories.
On the face of it, one would expect The Chernobyl Diaries to be the favorite here. It’s got a great hook, tourists trapped in the Chernobyl support village of Pripyat run into a tribe of cannibalistic mutants with hideously deformed faces (either that or they’re wearing old gas masks. They’re shown so fleetingly that I never got a good look at one). One of my favorite horror movies ever was the Dawn of the Dead remake and this looked to be in the same vein. Unfortunately, Diaries has none of the story or character depth of that film and ends up languishing in manufactured drama and overused tropes.
Anyone can tell a story about a group of people running away from monsters. The hard part is making viewers or readers care about the people running away from the monsters. You see how we’re into the Total Recall territory again? The writers lay in some artificial conflict between two brothers and a pair of newlyweds who are never really properly introduced but it’s just exterior noise.
Watching this group of really unsympathetic young people get picked off in an increasingly ridiculous series of set pieces, I was reminded of a truly awful book and film that swept the nation a few years ago, The Ruins. An unreadable book and a truly unwatchable movie, they both fail for the same reason Diaries does: the characters’ relatability ranges from “don’t care” to “wish she would just die already”. Throw in a completely ridiculous monster in the form of sentient vines (or mutants who have somehow managed to survive intense radiation for several decades) and you’ve got something that is really hard to care about.
Notice I didn’t warn you about spoilers? That’s because there is absolutely nothing to spoil. If you’ve seen the trailer for this movie, you’ve seen this movie.
The Awakening, on the other hand, was the one I was looking least forward to seeing. It looked like another twee British ghost story that spends most of its time going on about “The War” and “Mustard Gas” and wot-wot with a ghost thrown in every now and then for good measure. Like the Haunting of Downton Abbey – a concept I find so horrible it would just be unimaginable.
That’s not what this is. Much like the beautiful and powerful and sad and triumphant Pan’s Labyrinth (highly recommended, obviously) The Awakening uses the war as a backdrop for the real story. But in this case, the war is over and the people who have survived it (and the Spanish Flu epidemic) are living with the ghosts of a million dead from a single generation.
I’m struggling to find a way to explain how wonderful this movie is without ruining it for you. Suffice to say that the definition of “haunted” gets a workout and the lead character is on a journey of intense discovery. And it’s that character and that journey that give the story so much depth.
One thing to add, though, is that I’m in the minority with my fondness for this film. Rotten Tomatoes gives it a 62% from the critics (Roger Ebert, usually one of the more reliable critics, gave it a one word review: “Whatever”) and 52% from audiences. I attribute that to its slow pacing and gradual ratcheting up of the horror, two things that I believe add to the film rather than detract from it. So if you’re in the mood for a quick, cheap scare, definitely go for Chernobyl Diaries. If you’ve got the time and the patience for a really good ghost story, I recommend The Awakening.