Silent Hill Review

Ever since being adopted Sharon Da Silva’s (Jodelle Ferland) mental state has progressively worsened; more recently she has been sleep walking whilst calling out the name of “Silent Hill”. Her doctor recommends that she be sent to an institution, while her mother Rose (Radha Mitchell) strongly protests. However, her husband Chris (Sean Bean) tries to convince her that this would be in the best interests of their daughter. Refusing to let her go, Rose takes Sharon on a trip to the decayed town of Silent Hill in the hopes that they will discover just what is causing Sharon’s strange behaviour. When a vision of a young girl appears in front of Rose’s speeding car she swerves to avoid it and crashes into a wall just on the outskirts of town. When she awakens she finds that Sharon is missing amidst a thick fog; setting out on foot, calling out her name she is drawn toward a dark alleyway, however upon descending a staircase she hears the wails of sirens, which signal an inevitable change as the town suddenly begins to decay from within. Now trapped in an alternate reality, shrouded by a living darkness Rose finds herself alone, confounded by what is happening before her. She’s soon granted company in the form of Officer Cybil Bennett (Laurie Holden), who she managed to evade the previous night. Together they try to search for Sharon, hounded by the bizarre inhabitants of the town’s hidden world, but soon they are to learn the truth behind Silent Hill’s past and uncover Sharon’s destiny.

By the time that Konami released Silent Hill on the Sony Playstation in 1999 Capcom had been enjoying three years of success with their Resident Evil series. Touted as “survival horror” they placed the gamer in control of a protagonist whose goal it was to get off a zombie-infested island whilst trying to unravel clues behind several mysteries. They spawned many imitators of course, but none managed to come close to Resident Evil’s style of play. But Resident Evil was hardly an original concept itself; several years earlier PC gamers were enjoying Alone in the Dark, which would later be adapted into a major motion pile of crap. Konami had entered the “survival horror” genre with a game that was decidedly different in terms of audio, visual and overall content. Silent Hill served as a psychological trip into unknown territories. Forgoing more action in favour of creating an uncomfortable atmosphere the game employed several strong themes which would weave their way into later instalments; religion, sexual depravity, death, rebirth and so forth, all backed by Akira Yamaoka’s unsettling score. Symbols and metaphors, surreal and disturbing imagery all played important parts in drawing the gamer into a sick world. Situated at an abandoned lakeside resort, the town of Silent Hill has gone by relatively unnoticed. Only a special few heed to its call, and when they do they will find that true horror extends far beyond an ugly surface.

When it was announced that Christophe Gans was going to helm a live-action remake of the first game, after much speculation over a director, fans were relieved. “At least it’s not Uwe Boll” seemed to be the most frequent cry of joy. Clearly Silent Hill belonged only in the hands of an understanding director, and as we know there have been all too few of those when it comes to video game adaptations. Mortal Kombat aside the Anderson has tripped over many a hurdle when it comes to his game to movie transitions and the less said about Boll the better. Massive franchises Super Mario and Street Fighter were treated by visionary loons and subsequently died horrible deaths. So why do video game adaptations so often end up as complete turds? My argument would be that there’s no respect for the source material and too often producers are so worried about getting bums on seats that they’ll immediately order PG-13 shoots. Anderson and Boll may say that they’re huge games fans, but if that was the case then how do they get so much wrong? However Simon West’s Tomb Raider wasn’t too shabby and it’s my belief that he did capture the essence of the games, which wasn’t that difficult to begin with. So we come to Silent Hill and with that comes a heavy burden. Resident Evil and Tomb Raider could afford to go the action route, Silent Hill couldn’t. Neither could it ever hope to tone down its visceral imagery; if this film wasn’t going to be rated for adults then it would have already been dead in the water. So yes Silent Hill’s R rating was a true blessing.

With the director established the next concern was over how the original game was going to be worked into a feature length film. Granted Gans has made a few alterations, initially daunting ones, but changes that have ultimately served the franchise well. Gans substitutes Harry Mason – the male protagonist in the first game with Rose Da Silva. A great leap some might say, and when questioned about his decision Gans replied by saying that Harry had very effeminate qualities which would just have well been carried by a female lead, presumably then the idea of a man running around acting too scared would have been silly, whereas I’d dispute it anyway because Harry acts no differently than a lot of guys would, given the situation. But I digress. Furthermore he’s placed Silent Hill 2’s Triangle-Head (or Pyramid Head/Red Pyramid as he’s otherwise known) in here too, which seems to play with the series’ continuity somewhat. But truth be told Silent Hill incorporates something from each of the four games to date: impressively slinky and busty nurses with deformed heads, screeching, charred babies and armless globule thingies that vomit acid. While staying true to the series core Gans has done a little pic ‘n’ mixin’ in order to give us a single experience that is different from any individual game. After all, those games play like films themselves, so it’s refreshing to have a well realised take, with western sensibilities from a man who knows exactly what he’s doing.

And it’s with great pleasure that after such an enormous wait (felt like that anyway) that I can say that Gans has not only done the games justice, but has also directed one of the best horror films of the last decade. First of all, set decorator Carole Spier has absolutely nailed the look of the games; every dingy, rustic interior, from the hotel to the town hospital has been lifted straight out of the video game and given equally as much love on the silver screen, furthermore several familiar shots have been recreated with amazing detail for fans to instantly recognise. Gans has even opted for the first game’s signature piece, involving crackling radios - this time Rose’s mobile phone and Cybil’s talkie serving as replacements - and yes, even the coincidental appearance of a torchlight sees the director tip his hat to fans. While the transitions between the purgatory world and that of the opposing hell might prove to be somewhat puzzling for viewers unversed in the games or who are simply far too used to conventional horror they are nonetheless supremely tackled, proving just how integral they are within Silent Hill’s narrative. In addition one of the biggest aspects early on in the game was the sheer amount of fog that the player had to get through in order to reach the town of the title. Justifying that for a movie Gans has turned into a few decades worth of falling ash, brought on by a fire that prompted the immediate evacuation of Silent Hill. And it’s here that Screenwriter Roger Avery also adds a new twist. Silent Hill’s original working title was Centralia - named after an existing town in Pennsylvania, which to this day still harbours an underground fire. In many ways the town of Silent Hill mirrors that of its obvious inspiration, which also makes it that extra bit creepy due to its very real grounding. But rather than dwell on this freak hazard Gans looks deeper into its lineage and pulls a few pink rabbits out of his hat (SH fans will get that rubbishy gag). Of course the game dealt with similar themes, though I don’t ever recall the fog or town history being explained to us with as much detail.

By large Silent Hill brings with it religious connotations, though to be perfectly honest I don’t see them serving as any great commentary. Indeed they don’t, they’re simply a device for which to expose the greater threat within. These ultimately relate to the town’s fate and involve a greater conspiracy than the games showed. It’s when the film reaches its midway point that more characters enter the fold. The games never overly relied on multiple characters, choosing to stick with a select few in order to get you through. The character roster is upped considerably here; while the likes of Dahlia Gillespie, Alessa and Cybil are a given, we have a large cult that plays central to the plot. This broadens the world of Silent Hill and for an adaptation fits in well, even more successfully when early on we see masked assailants tracking Rosa, which generates an extra feeling of uncertainty. You’re unlikely to find anything religiously oriented here that will go beyond what Konami had already dealt with, save for a few choice lines, and it’s not likely to cause the kind of fuss that The Exorcist once did.

More surprisingly however is how much sexual violence Gans has got away with showing. It seems as if the BBFC are getting rather lax in rating contemporary horror; whether or not its violence is imitable is neither here nor there, it’s all so very fantastical, however there’s no denying its impact and it wouldn’t surprise me one iota if the eventual DVD release is given an 18 cert, given the fact that two primary examples relate to sexual power:

The following text contains spoilers. Click and drag over this box to view.
Pyramid Head stripping his female victim of her clothes before effortlessly skinning her with his bare hands, and later Alice Krige in a scene involving barbed wire that’s not entirely dissimilar to a certain forest rape in The Evil Dead being two moments likely to offend the most.
Although the film doesn’t go all out to show blood and gore, in favour of sticking to what makes the games so special: a tense atmosphere and psychological despair, it does delightfully show its antagonists doing things that not even the games dared to show.

The story itself is told remarkably well; it’s not flawless by any means and its influences can be seen when we approach the subject of witch hunts and heresy. The final act even threatens to get too silly for its own good, and yet it’s helmed with such a fierce approach during the events that play out that its barrage of gruesome and visceral imagery wins out above all. Perhaps the least successful aspect is Sean Bean’s side story, which, although it manages to open up some exposition doesn’t actually do a hell of a lot to further the main plot. Still Bean and his fellow co-star Kim Coates as detective Thomas Gucci put in fine performances which lends something extra toward providing a family dimension. As for everyone else? Mitchell and Holden are strong female protagonists, and when she’s not required to scream her daughter’s name several times throughout Mitchell takes command and comes away as a well realised heroine, despite a rather silly scene early on in the film in which she tries to evade a persuing Cybil, and thus placing her daughters life in danger regardless of whether or not she’s wearing a seatbelt. The supporting cast are more hit and miss however as we approach the final act, though they hardly have the greatest of lines to deal with. But considering even the games issued such amounts of ambiguous dialogue and lacked lengthy exposition I see it quite fitting for the film to be equally unforgiving. And, staying true to the games Gans leave us with an ambiguous ending, which doesn’t necessarily signal a sequel but leaves us pondering the outcome for some time.

Finally, Akira Yamaoka’s sound design and score from the games has been brought to life on the big screen absolutely wonderfully, with the help of Jeff Danna. This is unlike any score you’ll have heard for a horror film, with its jarring techniques being used to mirror the actions of the town itself; conjuring an industrial gothic sound which continuously pounds as Rosa journeys deeper into the bowels of Silent Hill. A touch of poignancy gives several scenes the depth they rightfully deserve, although one or two moments might have benefited from music that never actually made it onto the official game soundtracks. A scene during the final act is highly reminiscent of one involving Lisa from the original game (complete with nurse in identical gear), a scene that was marvellously executed with one of the most hauntingly beautiful themes to have ever graced a videogame. Still, that’s just me nitpicking. The length of the film when compared to that of the game means that we’re not going to see everything we desire, but for what it is I see no reason to be disparaged.


Overall

As a huge fan of the Silent Hill franchise my hopes for this film were set extremely high, yet I also worried that we would be seeing just another lacklustre effort. The trailers convinced me that we would indeed be seeing something special, and it’s about time really. Christophe Gans has done for video games what Rodriguez and Miller did for comic books. The result is THE greatest videogame adaptation ever made. Not only that but it stands up well on its own, and deserves to be commended for its “don’t give a fuck” attitude toward what it depicts on screen and not allowing itself to be lowered to something of far simpler standards. If like me you enjoy the games then I don’t see why you won’t be thrilled by Gans’ take on the subject. If you’re sick of the recent Hollywood drudgery then your faith may well be renewed; Silent Hill is a win/win situation whichever way you look at it.

One final note to Mr. Gans: if, sir, you make a sequel then I expect to see large, blood stained pink rabbits – with smiles on their faces, in a fairground. Oh and more nurses please. Thank you.

Overall

9

out of 10

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