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You are here: Home - - - > Rants - - - > Silent Hill (2006) Theatrical Review

Editorial - Sunday, May 14, 2006
"Silent But Deadly - A Look at the theatrical release of Silent Hill"

Aw, bollocks. If I had to sum it up in two words, it would be "Aw, bollocks". OK, so maybe that's a bit harsh. How does "missed opportunity" work for you? This is one for the books, boys and girls. I've got to tell you, I've been a huge fan of the original "Silent Hill" game for ages. It's hands-down the scariest, most surreal, and most disturbing video game I've ever played. Like many rabid fans of the game (not just the original, but the whole series), I've been waiting for a film version of "Silent Hill" since, well, since playing the game the first time on my trusty ol' Playstation. So, we all know that video game movies usually suck, right? Well, they usually do. And Christophe Gans' Silent Hill doesn't exactly shatter that particular mold. It doesn't "suck", per se, but it is such a profound disappointment that I just don't know where to begin. I should mention, for the record, that the reasons why Silent Hill is such a disappointment have nothing to do with the fact that it's a "video game movie", nor is it a particularly poor adaptation of the source material (as adaptations go). No, Silent Hill is a disappointment because its heart is so clearly in the right place, but it just doesn't have the courage, consistency, or ingenuity that it really needed in order to truly succeed. I'm sure you're sitting there going, "OK, Matt...enough with the intro! Explain, already!" OK...you asked for it.

Oh, and like I really need to tell you, but consider this your official SPOILER WARNING! You got that? Don't read unless you want to learn most of the major plot details and "secrets". You've been warned. Now let's get to it...

Silent Hill begins with Rose Da Silva (Radha Mitchell) and Chris Da Silva (Sean Bean, here only occasionally hiding his accent) frantically searching for their adopted daughter Sharon (Jodelle Ferland), who has the dangerous habit of sleepwalking herself into life-threatening situations. They find her at the top of a huge precipice, swaying dangerously in her unconscious state. Rose tackles Sharon moments before the little girl would have plummeted to her certain death. Sharon mumbles incoherently, the only decipherable words being “Silent Hill…Silent Hill”. Naturally, this disturbs Rose and Chris, and one day soon after this incident, Rose decides enough is enough, so she “kidnaps” Sharon and whisks her off so that she can have the chance to see this “Silent Hill” place for herself, and perhaps have a chance at some peace through the act of confronting her fears. Not exactly sound parenting, that. Despite Chris’ desperate phone calls, Rose ignores her husband’s pleadings and continues on to Toulouca County, West Virginia, wherein the abandoned mining “ghost” town of Silent Hill rests...and none too peacefully. Along the way, Rose encounters spunky and resourceful (and totally hot) motorcycle cop Sybil Bennet (Laurie Holden), who notes Rose’s uneasy and dodgy manner, and decides to follow the pair to Silent Hill. Meanwhile, Chris grimaces and wrings his hands desperately, and decides to try to go “rescue” his wife and daughter before…well, I’m not too sure, actually. He has no particular reason to fear “Silent Hill” at this point, and, while his wife’s methodology might seem a bit unconventional, it’s clear that her heart is in the right place, so why he bolts off to find Rose and Sharon isn’t all that clear. Whatever. Rose and Sharon continue toward Silent Hill, despite ominous warnings from locals to stay away. It seems that the subterranean coal fires that were ostensibly the cause of Silent Hill’s desertion are still burning, releasing highly toxic fumes into the air. Therefore, it’s explained, the only road leading into the town has long since been securely closed off, and by “securely closed off”, I’m of course referring to what could well be the flimsiest chain link barricade in the history of the universe. Pursued inexplicably by intrepid Officer Bennet, Rose demonstrates amazing parental clarity by crashing through the barricade at like 90 miles per hour, and then speeds off into the night. Panicked, Rose suddenly swerves to miss a little girl who suddenly darts out into the road. Rose crashes her (surprisingly fast) SUV, bumps her head on the steering wheel, and goes unconscious. When she wakes up, she finds that she’s surrounded by fog and falling “snow”, and that Sharon is missing. She gets out of the vehicle, and sees that she’s on the far edge of the town of Silent Hill (as is evidenced by the big sign reading “Welcome to Silent Hill”). After noticing that the “snow” isn’t actually snow, but that it’s ash (again, ostensibly given off by the underground coal fires) she takes off running down the abandoned streets of the town. Starting off a chain of events that will be instantly recognizable by anyone who has played the first game, Rose sees a little girl off in the fog-shrouded distance…a little girl who might be Sharon. She chases after the little girl, twisting and turning down streets, alleyways, and finally, down some stairs. Suddenly, a sound fills the air…a sound not unlike a bomb or tornado siren found in many small towns. Confused, Rose can only stop in her tracks as her surroundings go completely dark…and I mean completely dark. Lighting her handy Zippo (everyone seems to carry Zippo lighters in movies, ya know?), Rose resumes her frantic search. Her surroundings are suddenly even stranger than before…filled with rusted metal, chains, and dripping water everywhere. And then, the Grey Children come. This set of images and happenings is by far the scariest part of the whole movie. Fans of the game know exactly what’s going on here, as this whole “chase” sequence is pretty much shot for shot a direct “lift” from the game. In the game, this sudden, terrifying sequence sets the tone for the rest of the game, and is kind of a “point of no return” for the player. It’s as if the game is bluntly telling you, “Listen, if you’re not into having the holy living crap scared out of you by a game, try this on for size. We pretty much intend to scare the holy living crap out of you, so you should just turn off the PlayStation right here and now. If, however, you absolutely love the idea of being that terrified by a fuckin’ video game, then by all means, continue playing. That is all.” As this sequence unfolded on the screen, I couldn’t help be terrified, and I couldn’t help but feel something akin to, “OK, if the rest of the movie lives up to this one, perfect, beautiful, terrifying moment, then this movie is going to rock!” Unfortunately…

So, I’ve set it up for you, right? You’ve got an idea, whether or not you’ve ever played the game, what Silent Hill has in store for you, plot-wise, right? Good. Moving on.

Take the hopefulness of that previously described sequence, and turn it up to “11” for the next forty minutes or so, because Silent Hill takes those themes, camera angles, and creepy-crawlies and just amps them up to almost unbearable levels of creativity and horror. This “second act” of Silent Hill is a wonder to behold. There are moments ripped right out of the first two games, including some puzzle solving allusions, “fan favorite” monsters like “Pyramid Head” or “The Red Pyramid” as he/she/it is alternately known, and a bizarre cast of characters (including Alice Krige as “Christabella”, the leader of a bizarre cult made up of other residents of Silent Hill, and a remarkably Alice-Krige-like Deborah Kara Unger as “Dahlia Gillespie”, a beaten-down woman who’s also lost her child in Silent Hill, and in whom a dark secret resides). These denizens…human and otherwise…fill in the gaps and make the cinematic “Hill” a much more populous place than its video game namesake. Some of the stuff that happens during this second act is as heinous and graphic and terrifying as anything that I’ve ever seen in a mainstream movie. “Pyramid Head”, in particular, delivers some seriously nasty moments, including one instance that is an absolute show-stopper. You’ll know it when you see it.

As Rose and Cybil continue their search for Sharon, they slowly uncover some of the secrets of Silent Hill. A religious sect has taken up residence in the local church, where its members live in relative safety. It seems the “darkness” and its denizens cannot breach the walls of this “holy” place. Soon, Rose reaches a moment when she must face the darkness alone (again), and she ventures into the bowels of the “hospital”, where she hopes to find not only Sharon, but also the core of the evil that has overtaken the town, and thus, perhaps, a way out.

Meanwhile, Chris has run-ins with various Toulouca County folks, including one Officer Thomas Gucci (Kim Coates). Gucci, against his better judgment, accompanies Chris into Silent Hill, where they find a deserted, worn-out town, but little else. The town they visit is Silent Hill, but it’s not the same Silent Hill that holds his wife and daughter captive. You see, there are three distinct towns, each of them similar in general appearance, but completely different in texture, tone, and most important of all, demonic/bizarre activity level. The town of Silent Hill visited by Chris and the cop is the “real” Silent Hill…that is, it’s the version of the town that exists in the real, material, tangible world. And, it’s much like it’s reported to be by the various locals…simply a deserted town that has coal fires still burning under its streets. Then, there’s the “foggy and snowy/ashen” Silent Hill, which occupies a space, for the lack of a better term, just underneath or behind reality. It’s kind of an “in between” place…a “limbo”, if you’ll excuse the Catholic interpretation for the time being. It’s not quite reality, but it’s not quite as inherently fucked up as the third and final (I think) version of Silent Hill…the version that I call “Silent Hell”…yes, that’s right, “Hell”. In this version, the world is a rusted, rotted, bloodstained, fire-strewn place. Here is where the evil forces and monsters that plague the town are their strongest and most malevolent. Whatever. The point is that when Chris visits Silent Hill, he doesn’t see the same town that his wife sees. In fact, they even (for a fleeting moment) occupy the same space in the universe, only separated by “dimensions”. Chris feels it, too. He can “smell her perfume”, and sense her fear and isolation, if only in the vaguest of ways. But, without any evidence that Rose and Sharon are anywhere to be found within the town, Officer Gucci tentatively convinces Chris that there’s simply nothing more to be done…that Rose and Sharon will turn up eventually, and that Chris should just leave it to the authorities to take care of. Confused and none too willing to give up, Chris devises his own plan, though that plan proves, to say the least, futile.

So, none of this sounds all that bad, right? “Where’s the really bad news,” you ask? Well, the moment that the “second act” ends and the “third act” begins is when Silent Hill completely loses not only its heretofore carefully constructed momentum and freaky, reality-bending plot structure, but also simply starts to really not be a very good movie anymore. It’s like someone flipped a switch, and suddenly POOF…we’re watching another, very different movie. I’m serious. It’s that jolting. One of the truly beautiful things about the “Silent Hill” series of games (but most of all the first game) is that they don’t feel the need to actually “explain” every little thing that’s going on in minute detail. The creators of the game knew, wisely, that to do so would be to undermine the sheer terror and surrealism that they (and you, as the gamer) have just worked so hard to build. Just ask David Lynch (to whom the creators of the “Silent Hill” games owe a considerable creative debt, if only in “tone” and “feel”)…his whole fuckin’ career is built on not feeling the need to explain everything that happens in his weird little flicks. The rationale seems to be, “the player or audience will understand only what they need to understand…everything else is extraneous, and is therefore a bane to suspense and fear”. That is most definitely the battle cry that Christophe Gans and scriptwriter Roger Avary should have adhered to in this case, but alas, they go and fuck it all up by giving us the “third act” that they gave us. They each deserve a spanking, because it just kills the movie.

So, you want details about what happens in the third act? Well, starting at that aforementioned “moment”, one of the major characters launches into a lengthy (whoa, is it lengthy) explanation/justification of/for damn near every detail about the background of the town of Silent Hill. Furthermore, this character goes on to paint a “Crucible” like picture of religious zealotry gone awry, and its awful consequences. It’s not that this stuff is particularly bad, mind you, it’s just that it is completely out of place within the context of the rest of the movie. It’s like you’re zipping along merrily in your badass Corvette, and suddenly, somebody shines a big magical light on your car, and it turns out you’ve been driving a Pennsylvania Dutch wagon the whole time. It’s really disappointing and jarring. Well, through this obnoxious and wholly unnecessary sequence, Rose learns “the truth” about Silent Hill, and the relationship between Sharon and the mysterious little “look-alike” girl named Alessa. She also learns some hogwash about how the “true” evil doesn’t reside within the monsters and the “darkness”, but how it instead stems from the actions of the religious cult holed up in the church. So, in an effort to rescue her daughter, who by now is being held captive in the church, she allows herself to be “possessed” by whatever force is controlling Alessa, thus allowing it entry into the heretofore forbidden church. Once safely inside, this “force” or “demon” or whatever you want to call it can then exact revenge and holy/unholy retribution, or something like that. Rose allows the demon to leave her body, where it inflicts gory mayhem on the zealots for a few minutes (including some pretty interesting barbed wire attacks which are, by far, the highlight of the last half hour of the film).

Another problem that I have, and that many fans will likely have, is that there are simply too many people running around. Nowhere is this truer than in the town of Silent Hill itself. In the game, a great deal of delicious suspense and dread are generated by the mere fact that you spend much of the game alone. Even when you do happen upon another living person, you can’t be sure what their motivations are, and more often than not, they’re just as outright creepy and unpleasant to be around as are the monsters themselves. Not so here, I’m afraid. When we are first shown the sheer number of people holed up in that church, it’s like a friggin’ town hall meeting, or something. There are throngs of people inhabiting the town. So, instead of isolation and loneliness, we often feel claustrophobia setting in. These guys are armed, too! Sure, they’re armed with pipes, bats, shovels, and other multitasked “practical” items, but still…when Pyramid Head makes his grand appearance on the church steps, one gets the impression that, simply due to the sheer numbers of people standing around with rudimentary weapons, they could pretty easily surround Pyramid Head and take his admittedly bad ass right the fuck down and beat him to death. I’m just sayin’ there’s too many people.

Now, let’s move on to the acting. Ahhh, the acting. Poor Radha Mitchell. I’m sure she’s a talented enough actress, but here she’s just not very good at all. Pretty bad, in fact. Unlike as is so often the case with ordinarily good actors in sub-par movies, her performance can’t be intrinsically blamed on a crappy script. She’s does just fine when it’s just her on the screen, or perhaps in her interactions with Sybil Bennet, but when she’s forced to deliver strong speeches and pontifications (as in the “climactic” scenes in the church), she just stumbles over her lines and looks extremely uncomfortable doing so. Sean Bean doesn’t fare very well either, but since his character is essentially pointless and useless to the story, it’s nothing more than a distraction. Alice Krige as “Christabella” does serviceable work, but again, her character shouldn’t be there in the first place. She does creepily self-righteous better than most, and I half expected her to suddenly morph into her “Borg Queen” character from Star Trek: First Contact. Laurie Holden’s “Sybil” is pretty good, however, and she strikes the right (and expected) balance of sexiness and bad-ass-butt-kicker. She’s the one character that survives the translation from game to movie pretty much unscathed, and Holden does pretty good stuff with the character.

I’m railing pretty hard against Silent Hill, I guess, and deservedly so. But, it’s not all bad. There are some pretty good (dare I say “excellent”) aspects to the flick, too. The special effects are pretty exceptional. The various “design” departments have really outdone themselves on this one, bringing the gritty, foggy, rusty, bloody hell of Silent Hill to vivid life in many cases. Some of my personal favorite monsters from the game are here; the “grey children” put in a wonderfully creepy appearance, complete with the bizarre “baby screams” that are their trademark. Also, Pyramid Head looks great and moves just like he/she/it did in the game. Sure, he doesn’t do the “mutant corpse raping” thing that made him so famous in the game, but he’s still a huge-knife-wielding badass. The faceless “nurses” are one of the more memorable creatures from the game, and their jerky movements and weird little semi-sexual groans are slapped right up on screen here. They are a wonderful combination of every man’s “fantasy nurse”, with the plunging necklines, bountiful bosoms, short skirts, and stiletto heels that fit that particular bill, but they’re also reflective (appropriately enough) of the worst nurse/doctor/hospital nightmares any child has ever had. Likewise, the set design is pretty astounding, and in key sequences, the look of the game is literally brought to vivid, hideous life. I haven’t seen this kind of thing done better on screen since, well, since perhaps Hellbound: Hellraiser 2 (to which this film owes a considerable debt, in some ways).

But there’s a stupefying feeling of “too little, too late”, or “too much, too soon”, or what have you. It’s really a crying shame that someone took so promising a concept, so rich and vivid a tapestry of nightmarish imagery, so potent a source and turned it into something so thoroughly “meh”. I’m sorry, Monsieur Gans, but you might have bitten off more than you could chew, here. If you had just continued the tone that you so carefully established during the first two-thirds of the film, dispensed altogether with Sean Bean’s character, and left out some of the expository crap that brings your film, such as it is, to a screeching halt, then you might have just had one of the best damned mainstream horror films of the last, say, two decades. You were on the right track…really you were.

Better luck next time.

The bottom line: Silent Hill is, for the first hour and twenty minutes, a taut, scary, and thoroughly disgusting horror movie that really does the game justice, despite some unnecessary characters and lackluster performances. But the last forty minutes are so flawed, derivative, and over-explained that it just kills the whole movie. As I mentioned waaaay up there in paragraph one of this review, the best way to sum up Silent Hill is with the words “missed opportunity”.

Aw, bollocks.

- Matthew Dean Hill

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