Area 51 (2015) Six Years Too Late

Freon suited and booted in Area 51 Directed and co-written by Oren Peli (Christopher Denham was the other writer on the film) and starring a cast of unknowns, Area 51 began production in 2009 and took until 2015 to be released in a limited run that netted Peli and the studios an abysmal $7K.  

For what ever reason this “found footage” film from Paranormal Activity director Oren Peli lived in purgatory until this year. Sadly, the film could have worked much better with a release date nearer the time of PA. By this point and time “found footage” films have worn out their welcome.

Ignoring the blatant product placement at the start of the film, where the camera moves in for a close up of the Sony personal cams to be worn by the group’s members. (And ignoring that fact that these particular models have most likely been replaced by smaller better versions six years later.) The story of a group of UFO enthusiasts who outsmart Area 51 security to find some amazing, and deadly, secrets underground entertains, but just barely.

Perhaps the biggest let down of the film is the decision to keep any real action from making an appearance till the back end of the feature. Using two-thirds of the film as buildup just does not work and the action, when it does make an appearance is not enough to make this a great experience.

The storyline is interesting enough and the scenes where the group talk to UFO experts and then break into an Area 51 employee’s house are good. The breaking and entering set piece keeps the viewer on the edge of their seat, but sadly, there are not enough of these tense moments.

When the small group finally get to their objective, there are some interesting things waiting for them. Unfortunately, even the decision to not show the alien who chases the young people through the labyrinth does not really up the fear ante.

The news is not all bad. Peli manages to make this film feel like a documentary. The interviews at the beginning, the real-life “experts” and the “interviews” the young men do with the “locals” at the Little A’Le’Inn all go toward making this feel like a fly-on-the-wall feature. This works well, but is not enough to compensate for the worn out sub-genre of found footage horror.

With Peli’s brain-child, and mega-hit, Paranormal Activity spawning a slew of sequels that will, apparently, be re-created and added to till the end of time, the scares have been overdone in those films. Even the director’s “homage” to the first film via Jelena Nik (as Jelena) standing stock still in an trance is more annoying than amusing or clever.

The actors all do well in their appointed roles; Reid Warner, Darren Bragg, and Ben Rovner all convince us as the young men who get caught up in their obsession. Timing, as they say, is everything however and as mentioned previously had this film been released back in 2009 it might have found an audience.

The scares and the manner of delivery feels six years old. Outdated, outmoded, perhaps this one was doomed to VoD and the DVD bargain basement bin from the start. Area 51 suffers from its delayed release and is now nothing more than a curiosity and a pale reflection of other films that did it better (think V/H/S).

Area 51 is a 2.5 out of 5 stars and is on US Netflix at the moment. Worth a look but most assuredly not worth two. Horror fans may get a little more out of the viewing but this could well signal the death of found footage horror films…

Please let it be so.

Chernobyl Diaries (2012): Het (‘Nyet’) Спасибо (‘spah-see-bah’)

Written by Oren Peli (Paranormal Activity) who also adapted the story for the screen with Carey and Shane Van Dyke (sons of Dick Van Dyke) and directed by Bradley Parker (better known for visual effects) Chernobyl Diaries started off with signs of a promisingly good film.

Unfortunately this promise soon vanished when the film turned into a vapid repeat of the flavour of the moment, i.e. zombies or at the very least zombie-like creatures.

Following the theme of Urban Exploration aka Extreme Tourism, a group of twenty-somethings all get together for a slightly “less-than-legal” tour of Pripyat, the specially constructed town that was built for the Ukrainian workers at the Chernobyl nuclear plant. In 1986 every man, woman and child was evacuated from Pripyat when one of the reactors at Chernobyl exploded.

The plot is as follows: A group of young adults, Chris (Jesse McCartney), his girlfriend Natalie (Olivia Dudley), and their mutual friend Amanda (Devin Kelley), are traveling across Europe. They stop in Kiev, Ukraine, to visit Chris’s brother, Paul (Jonathan Sadowski), before heading on to Moscow where Chris intends to propose to Natalie. [courtesy of Wikipedia]

Paul talks Chris, Natalie and Amanda into going on a tour of Pripyat. Chris has some serious misgivings about this but he is outvoted by girlfriend Natalie and Amanda.

All four of them meet up with tour guide Uri (Dimitri Diatchenko) and they are joined by a Nordic girl and her Australian boyfriend. Uri has done the tour many times and he assures the holiday makers that it will be safe and that the radiation levels are acceptable. He also tells them that the maximum amount of time they will spend there will be two hours.

When the group arrive at the guarded entrance to Pripyat, the guards tell Uri that he cannot take his group in as there is some sort of maintenance going on and it isn’t safe. Paul is upset as he has pre-paid and Uri assures him that he knows of another way in and that the tour will proceed.

Taking the “back door” into the deserted city, the group eventually arrive and proceed with the tour. They are getting their money’s  worth until they find that their touring van has been damaged and they cannot get out. Uri goes to investigate, with Chris hot on his heels.

Paul chases after the both of them. Uri is taken by a something, Chris is horribly injured and Paul is freaked out. Thus begins the spiral down into mediocrity that is Chernobyl Diaries.

The best character in the film is Uri. Unfortunately he is not in the film long enough to save it. But as he is written and acted you can see the unease that he has with what he is doing. He fears and respects the off-limits area and he feels for the people who were caught up in the 1986 disaster.

At one point he even has tears in his eyes as he surveys the ruin that the city has become.

Uri (Dimitri Diatchenko)

Unfortunately Uri is the only character that is not a cardboard cut-out. The American group are all two dimensional and vapid. The Norwegian and Australian are very similar and none of them elicit any feelings of compassion by the viewer. Well at least not the two viewers who watched the film on Blu-ray last night.

What could have been a great film dealing with the issues of radiation poisoning and mutated animals and getting stranded in such a sad and desolate place and having to escape packs of wild starving dogs was instead turned into a “run-of-the-mill” creature feature.

The obligatory zombie like creatures were trotted out and used to “nom-nom” on the remaining tourists and nibble their numbers slowly down. Even after the final two survivors are “saved” (and oh boy, we didn’t see that coming did we *cue sarcasm*) their final moments are again clichéd and cheapened.

Following the formula of “stranger in a strange land” that is so popular when dealing with Slavic countries, Diaries overlooks the seriousness of the Chernobyl disaster and the after effects that the Ukraine suffered (not to mention how the catastrophe affected the rest of the  world).

The film does look good though. Filming in Serbia and Hungary and using a deserted Russian Air Force Base as their filming locations, apart from the occasional gaffe, seems to have worked very well.

What is interesting to note is that “legal” tours are actually allowed into the city of Pripyat.  Your tour guide will be a Ukrainian minister of government and it will set you back about $150 or £100 pounds.  Although, unlike the city’s appearance as depicted in the film, you will find inhabitants and workers still living there. Granted, not a lot, but there nonetheless. The radiation levels have lowered sufficiently for official tours to take place.

Perhaps if Oren Peli had gotten the green light for his film a decade earlier it would not only have been a “trendsetter” but it would have paved the way for Extreme Tourism.

My final verdict is this, watch it for Uri’s character and then turn the film off after Uri disappears. Or better yet, just wait for it to come on television.

Paranormal Activity 3 (2011) A Shining Example of Why Sex Tapes are Bad

Like many other folks, I saw  Paranormal Activity and liked it. Granted I did not see it at the cinema, I waited until it was on sale for five pounds. Because of the price, I mean a fiver is not a lot for a film, I was surprised to find that I did like it. Then they came out with Paranormal Activity 2 which in my humble opinion was even better than the first one. I also thought that was the end of the films.

Wrong!

Of course PA3 as with all the subsequent PA films was directed by a different person. Oren Peli, who wrote and directed the first in the trilogy, is back on board as a co-writer. Paranormal Activity 3 was directed by no less than two people, Henry JoostAriel Schulman, and they negate the old saying of too many cooks. This latest offering in the Paranormal series kicks ass.

Time for another Reader’s Digest version of the plot. At the beginning of the film we see a box of video tapes being delivered by Katie (the soon to be deceased protagonist from Paranormal Activity) to her pregnant sister Kristi (soon to be deceased protagonist from PA2) the box of tapes is put in the basement. A bit later in the film the tapes go missing after a “break-in.”

The tapes are from 1988. In that year Katie and Kristi are living with their mother Julie and her boyfriend Dennis. Dennis has his own business, he uses the ‘new’ videotape craze to his advantage by taping weddings and other special events. One such event, Dennis decides, should be a sex tape with him and girl friend Julie. While they begin to tape their “sex-capade” an earthquake strikes. They immediately stop to check on the girls. With the video recorder still running, we see  a place where the dust falling from the ceiling causes a shape to appear.

When Dennis reviews the tape the next day, he shows Julie. All Julie notices it how fat she looks in the video. After the girls moved in with Mom Julie,  Kristi started talking to an invisible friend  called Toby. Toby starts getting more active as time goes by and does a few disturbing things. Dennis decides to start filming around the house to try and catch whoever is doing these things. He enlists the help of his assistant Randy. As events begin to escalate the doubtful Julie (who has never really believed in Toby or the things he has been supposedly doing) realizes that something is going on and to Grandmother’s house they go.

The film delivers some first class chills, thrills, and jumpy scares. Towards the beginning of the film, I almost had a heart attack, in a scene that featured Julie, Dennis and a fright mask. It had nothing to do with the ‘paranormal activity’ but the film had me so cranked up it still scared me. Later in the film when things are escalating and  are starting to get a bit dangerous, there is a scene with the babysitter that again scared the crap out of me.

This is a worthy addition to the previous two films and has done so well in terms of profits that the studio has announced that they are working on a Paranormal Activity 4. I hope they realize that going to the well too often can result in a dry bucket. Still they will have to stop sometime. Before video tapes it was 8 mil and 16 mil and before that, well you catch my drift.