Where Have All the Gigantic, Nuclear-Powered, Horror Monsters Gone?

Radiation fears in the new Chernobyl Diaries make for just another worn-out zombie flick. But after Fukushima, surely another Godzilla awaits.

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There are few horrors that any filmmaker has ever devised to put onscreen that can match those that face us in the real world and within our own psyches. That's why the language of horror has always been metaphor: vampires for the fearful power of lust and sex, werewolves for the repressed and violent sides of our own natures, and zombies for the slow, unstoppable march of death.

But with the birth of the atomic age, horror saw a sea change. Who needs monsters when mankind has the ability to wipe out millions of people in an instant with the press of a button? In terms of things that go bump in the night, a nuclear warhead creates an awfully loud bump. But how dependent were the scares in those films on the tenor of the time? Does nuclear radiation still provide enough energy to fuel 90 minutes of fright, as director Bradley Parker and writer/producer Oren Peli (creator of the Paranormal Activity series) hope is the case in the new Chernobyl Diaries?

The answer to that question is probably a definitive, resounding, "maybe." That's because Chernobyl Diaries doesn't really seek to follow any of the conventions of atomic age horror. This is a standard-issue slasher movie without much slashing, substituting the ghost town of Pripyat—the city that housed the workers and families of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, hurriedly evacuated in the wake of that plant's disastrous 1986 accident—for the likes of Friday the 13th's Camp Crystal Lake. It's essentially exactly the film many audiences thought they were going to see when they turned out for Cabin in the Woods last month: unironic boilerplate horror, with a cast of young, attractive archetypes secluded in a remote location, being picked off in the dark one by one.

Those expendable protagonists are a group of tourists and their "extreme" tour guide Uri, who sneaks tour groups into Pripyat for a couple of hours at a time. The monsters stalking them once they get there are about the only element of the film that can be linked to the former golden age of nuclear horror, and even that connection is tenuous, as they're barely seen humans transformed into beings that more resemble zombies than irradiated mutants.

Monsters were always key to atomic age horror: When that post-World War II shift happened, the monster movie didn't disappear—it just transformed from the mythic to the scientific. Nine years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a mutant, amphibious dinosaur rose out of the Pacific and started trampling houses and ripping down power lines all over Tokyo. As a metaphor, Godzilla was as lumbering and clumsy as his rubber-suited movements onscreen: Awesomely powerful nuclear explosions capable of mass destruction had, in the movie's mythology, given rise to an awesomely powerful monster capable of mass destruction. Clumsy or no, it was effective, and just the outlet for nuclear anxiety the Japanese people needed. The wildly popular series spawned dozens of sequels and monsters from Mothra to Megalon.

Back in the U.S., just a few months earlier, American audiences were treated to their own irradiated beasties, in the form of Buick-sized ants terrorizing the desert southwest in Them!. The template for atomic-age horror was set: Take the familiar, expose it to dangerous radiation, and watch the horrific mutations propagate—whether it was giant ants, house-sized tarantulas, or crabs whose pincers could split you at the waist.

The danger to the people in these films was only occasionally the radiation itself. More often it was the radiation's monstrous byproducts that presented a threat to large numbers of people. In a world where nuclear anxiety was a constant, these films were a reflection of that just-barely sublimated nervousness. When that nervousness began to subside with the end of the Cold War, those films disappeared too.

That's part of the reason that the portions of Chernobyl Diaries that do rely on radiation fears simply don't work. Those fears aren't as firmly ingrained in our psyches as they were decades ago. More importantly, in order to tap into those fears, Parker and Peli have to bypass metaphor and subtlety. The threat for much of the early portion of the film isn't anything the radiation has given rise to, but the radiation itself. Geiger counters simply aren't scary, and an invisible force that in the short term might make you sick and in the long term might give you cancer just doesn't provide the immediacy needed. That's why '50s horror usually depended on literally larger-than-life monsters: The less tangible the root of the fear, the more overt its metaphorical surrogate.

But when this film does give us monsters, they're generic, mostly shrouded in shadow, and too reminiscent of other monsters that already carry their own metaphorical baggage. They're inconsistent, too, as if the creators couldn't decide just what kind of monsters they wanted. Sometimes they lurk and lumber; sometimes they're speedy and stealthy. In one scene, one of the monsters is a child who stands motionless with her back to the group for no other reason than that affectless zombie children rank high on the innate creepiness factor. Apart from that, she seems shipped in from an entirely separate but equally generic movie.

None of this is to say that nuclear horror doesn't still retain some power when done more subtly. Teeth, a campy 2007 horror comedy about a young woman with a mythical condition known as vagina dentata, never explicitly addresses the root of her mutation. But director Mitchell Lichtenstein is always sure to prominently display the nuclear reactor that looms in the background behind the house she grew up in. It's a forboding image that's never discussed in the film, which makes it a much more frightening force than anything in Chernobyl Diaries.

Horror tends to be cyclical, and the old fanged favorites and the walking dead are back in vogue. As far as science-based horror goes, who knows what the next frontier might be—genetic experiments gone wrong would probably be a safe bet, though. Yet there's probably still a place in the canon for nuclear horror, even if Chernobyl Diaries doesn't manage to pick up the mantle.

The earthquake-initiated accident at Fukushima last year demonstrates that there's still plenty of disastrous potential left in nuclear power. As the long-term impact of that accident becomes clearer in the years to come, and the children of Japan come of age with that on their minds, perhaps the next generation of Japanese filmmakers will find new monsters to raise up out of the water.