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A lesson in horror meltdown

CD-FP-001 (L-r) DEVIN KELLEY as Amanda, OLIVIA TAYLOR DUDLEY as Natalie and JESSE McCARTNEY as Chris in Alcon Entertainment, Film Nation Entertainment and Oren Peli/Brian Witten Pictures’ “CHERNOBYL DIARIES,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.

Six young adults sign up for an “extreme tourism” adventure to Pripyat, the dilapidated town in the shadow of Chernobyl’s shuttered nuclear reactor. The Americans are: sensitive Chris (teen idol singer Jesse McCartney), his sweet-natured girlfriend, Natalie (Olivia Taylor Dudley), her newly single friend Amanda (Devin Kelley) and Chris’ impulsive brother, Paul (Jonathan Sadowski). They are joined by laid-back Aussie Michael (Nathan Phillips) and Micheal’s Norwegian bride Zoe (Ingrid Bolso Berdal).

Following a two-hour drive from Kiev, they arrive at a block of boxy, identical five-story buildings, stamped around a square. These apartments once housed thousands of workers living within sight of the nuclear plant. The complex resembles a prison that is guarded by a forlorn, dilapidated Ferris Wheel at its center. Self-assured guide Uri (Dimitri Diatchenko) explains that the residents were preparing for their May Day celebration when No. 4 reactor melted down on April 26, 1986. They had five minutes to evacuate.

Twenty-six years later, possessions remain exactly as they were left. One young tourist picks up a dust-covered magazine. He is chastised with a story recounting the harrowing deaths suffered by looters of the abandoned apartments, following contamination from the objects they stole. A moment later, the group is puzzled by banging sounds, and must stand aside as an angry grizzly makes its escape.

The forests and water surrounding Pripyat are slowly reclaiming the site. Trees, bushes and grass thrust their way through cracks in the cement. Wild dogs can be heard and glimpsed in the distance – and somewhere, an angry bear lurks. Uri sensibly insists they clear the area before dark, but his aging Soviet van refuses to start. Unable to contact the outside world, they decide to spend the night inside the van.

This eerie set-up reveals what drew Oren Peli, auteur of the “Paranormal” franchise, to this story of tragic loss and subsequent gawking by adventure-seekers, including those seeking an extreme-movie experience.

His tale could have achieved Peli’s goal had he left it to bears, dogs and radiation that becomes unsafe after two hours of exposure, to mete out a quotient of poetic justice. Instead, he goes far afield and over the top, inventing a group of mutants living secretly within the complex, and presenting them as the killers most to be feared.

Glimpsed briefly in the shadows or at a distance, these pathetic creatures are strong, fast and surprisingly agile. A few well-conceived visuals and jolts aside, the mutant story lacks power. What frightens us most is reflecting upon the story of Chernobyl – then and now.