Archive for April 21, 2006

Silent Hill

April 21, 2006

The creepy survival-horror video-game series Silent Hill, from what I gather, is an immersive and mystifying experience. It’s all about atmosphere and dread. The movie version is like a big piece of fan fiction that fills in everything left unexplained in the games, and some fans of the games may appreciate that, while others may not feel that the invented mythology lives up to the story in their imaginations. I come to Silent Hill as someone who’s seen the game played a couple of times, so I approach it as a horror fan watching a horror movie. What I can tell you is that the film imports the atmosphere successfully, but everything it adds felt tired to me — ah, jeez, not religious wackos again.

Silent Hill is certainly the oddest film in a long while to get a wide release in this country. Gnarled, twisted, faceless things come writhing out of the shadows, presenting not danger so much as a kind of metaphysical repulsion. The game started with the Japanese, as so much recent horror does, and they know how to tweak the senses with nightmare logic. For them it all seems post-Hiroshima — all ghosts, or deformity, or deformed ghosts. What a French director (Christophe Gans, who made Brotherhood of the Wolf) and a Canadian screenwriter (Roger Avary, who cowrote Pulp Fiction and directed The Rules of Attraction) do with this fundamentally Japanese material makes for a strange yet conventional mix.

Rose (Radha Mitchell) has been worrying about her little daughter Sharon (Jodelle Ferland), who’s been sleepwalking and talking about a town called Silent Hill. The place has been deserted for years, a casualty of coal-mine fires. Despite the wealth of online information about the town, Rose decides to take Sharon there. In the dead of night, and without her husband (Sean Bean, little more than an afterthought). Well, if we outlawed dumb behavior in horror movies, there’d be none left.

A female cop (Laurie Holden) gets involved, and soon she and Rose are exploring the ashy town, looking for Sharon and dealing with various freaky creatures. One such critter, known to fans as Pyramid-Head, is the movie’s equivalent of a “boss battle.” Indeed, even gamers who aren’t familiar with Silent Hill will recognize the structure: Here’s a Clue! You may want to investigate room 111. There doesn’t seem to be a room 111, but there is a painting here — press the X button to check it.

Christophe Gans fashioned a pretty good werewolf-fantasy pastiche with Brotherhood of the Wolf, and here he goes all out with the rusty, gore-spattered walls and chained-up corpses. Silent Hill is unquestionably the most visually alive film based on a video game, though, given the source, it would take concentrated ineptitude not to make it look interesting. But all of this creepiness and visual ingenuity leads to … a bunch of holy-roller throwbacks who shout, without irony, things like “Burn the witch, kill the demon!” (I half-expected Michael Palin to pop up and accuse Rose of having turned him into a newt.) The last third of the movie, devoted to these idiots in 19th-century drag (led by a poofy-haired Alice Krige), is exceptionally dull, despite the appearance of a barbed-wire demon that earns the movie its R rating all by itself. The message goes all the way back to Carrie: Don’t abuse weird little girls or they will fuck you up.

The set-up of Silent Hill, like the video games, is intriguing and original — newcomers won’t be sure where it’s going. When everything starts being explained, though, the mystery evaporates and the world of the game loses its eerie bafflement — which is half its power. It doesn’t help that the dialogue is no more than functional and the acting little better (Radha Mitchell tries and sometimes fails to squelch her Aussie accent; Sean Bean doesn’t even bother to cloak his English accent; somehow, he’s supposed to be playing someone named Da Silva — his family must be from the famous British part of Portugal). Silent Hill takes something freaky and unclassifiable and gradually turns it into … a horror flick. And a horror flick that, as a horror fan, I’ve seen before: yeah, The Ring meets Hellraiser meets The Village. The game wasn’t anything meets anything. And now, unfortunately, the game has met Hollywood.