I deliberately avoided learning very much about the Silent Hill video games on which Christophe Gans’ film of the same name is based. I wanted — as nearly as possible — to approach it as a film on its own merits, since I’ve never played the game and likely never will. I also had no desire to get bogged down in the minutiae of differences so beloved by gamers.
What I had managed to learn nevertheless was that the game tends to be less prized for its storyline than for its mood, and that seems to be the approach Gans took with the film, which is far stronger on atmosphere and imagery than on plot. At the same time, I’m a little perplexed by the number of critics who seem to find Silent Hill hard to follow. Come on, the plot isn’t exactly hard to follow, though it may be hard to swallow.
A mother, Rose Da Silva (Radha Mitchell, Melinda and Melinda), takes her troubled, adopted daughter, Sharon (Jodelle Ferland, Tideland), to the ghost town of Silent Hill, W.Va., thinking that there she may find the key to her daughter’s problems, since whenever Sharon has one of her episodes (which always seem to end with the child sleepwalking to the edge of dangerous cliffs) she mentions Silent Hill. Rose’s husband, Christopher (Sean Bean, Flightplan), opposes the plan, and the area locals also do their best to keep them from getting there — a little pointless since there’s a Department of Transportation exit sign for the place.
Thanks to her husband’s efforts to stop her, she finds herself being pursued by a motorcycle cop, Cybil Bennet (Laurie Holden, Fantastic Four), who dresses like she moonlights as a dominatrix at a leather bar. Arriving at the turn-off, Rose crashes through the gates leading to the town, swerves to miss the requisite ghostly apparition in the road, slams her head against the steering wheel and wakes to find herself in what appears to be a thick fog, but what is actually smoke from the coal fires that have been burning beneath the town for the past 30 years. Sharon, on the other hand, has simply vanished.
The town itself seems to be deserted, though Rose keeps seeing glimpses of a child who looks remarkably like Sharon. Her pursuit of this figure leads her further and further into the hellish horrors of the town. She eventually teams up with the cop, who has to admit that things are not what they seem once she encounters a hobbling monster that spews black acid on her (good thing she was wearing all that leather!).
The bulk of the film details the search for Sharon and the unraveling of the mystery of the town and Sharon’s place in that mystery. This is partly accomplished by the story of Rose and the cop’s search for Sharon, and partly by a parallel story involving Christopher and the local sheriff (Kim Coates, Assault on Precinct 13) exploring a town that’s almost exactly like the Silent Hill of Sharon’s experience, yet not quite. It’s quickly obvious that Rose, Sharon and Cybil have crossed over into an alternate reality, while Christopher is still part of the real world.
The mystery is more of a mystery to the characters than the viewer — it’s apparent early on what happened to cause all this — but that’s not really the point of the film, though it probably should have been. It’s this lack of mystery that keeps Silent Hill from quite reaching the level of Gore Verbinski’s The Ring. The revelations in that film each added another frisson to the proceedings, making the movie progressively creepy. Here, they merely confirm what we already know, so that what happens — no matter how visually disturbing — doesn’t have the impact it might.
What does work, however, is the power of the individual sequences, which are nothing if not nightmarish, and which, despite being farmed out to a number of effects houses, feel very much of a piece. The fact that Gans created as much as possible by traditional (rather than computer-generated imagery) methods likely adds to that. The final product seems more the vision of the filmmaker than that of a variety of effects houses.
No, the film is not perfect — anything but. The set-up is clunky, Roger Avary’s dialogue is often risibly bad, the acting is stilted, the musical score relies (apparently) too much on the music from the games (sounding a bit cheesy when the story is 50 feet wide), etc. But there’s a wonderfully nasty edge to the film that creates an effective cinematic nightmare, thanks to the effects, Carol Spier’s production design (it’s hardly coincidental that she has designed David Cronenberg’s films since 1983), and the complete lack of an in-joke, winking post-modern sensibility. There’s a sense of Clive Barker here and a nod to the hermetic horror world of Michele Soavi’s Cemetery Man.
It’s possible that I’m overlooking or understating the film’s shortcomings simply because it’s refreshing to see a full-blown, straight-faced, supernatural horror movie in this age of grubby torture flicks being mistaken for the coin of the realm. And there’s something satisfying and subversive about a story that’s grounded in all this evil being the direct result of the actions of religious fanatics (making the film a spiritual brother to Gans’ previous film, Brotherhood of the Wolf). Be warned, though, that the film is extremely violent and gory and is not going to be to everyone’s taste. Rated R for strong horror-violence and gore, disturbing images, and some language.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke